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Aqueduct and the Water-Food-Energy Nexus

This piece was coauthored by: Joe Rozza, P.E., BCEE, Global Water Resource Sustainability Manager, The Coca-Cola Company; Greg Koch, Managing Director, Global Water Stewardship, The Coca-Cola Company; Jonathan Boright, Research Scientist, ISciences LLC; Nicole Grohoski, Research Analyst, ISciences LLC

The Aqueduct project is an effort to measure and map water related risks being developed by the World Resources Institute with the support of an alliance founded by General Electric and Goldman Sachs. As part of this effort, the Aqueduct team convened its hydrological modeling partner ISciences and experts from The Coca-Cola Company to develop and analyze a set of maps for the Bonn2011 Nexus conference that illustrate the complex relationships between water, food, and energy worldwide (see below).

Why focus on the water-food-energy nexus? Like water, food and energy are basic necessities of life that help support robust economies and stable political systems. Agriculture and power generation, moreover, account for the majority of water withdrawals in most developed countries. In the United States, for example, these two uses account for over 80% of total water withdrawals – about 34% of water withdrawn is used for agriculture, and about 48% for power generation (most water used in power generation is withdrawn but not consumed – rather it is returned to surface waters). In both developed and developing countries, agriculture tends to account for at least 70% of water consumption (water lost to the watershed through evaporation or plant transpiration, or by other means).

Driven primarily by population growth and economic development, global food and energy requirements are expected to increase significantly in the coming decades.

  • The Food and Agriculture Organization recently estimated that feeding a global population of 9 billion people in 2050 will require a 70% increase in total food production.

  • Additionally, the World Energy Council has estimated that energy supplies must double by 2050 to meet the energy demand of all households worldwide.

Given current and predicted future levels of water stress, finding the water resources needed to meet this projected growth in demand for food and energy presents a formidable challenge.

The water-energy nexus

In analysis presented at the Bonn2011 Nexus Conference on November 17th 2011, The Coca Cola Company, the World Resources Institute and ISciences L.L.C. overlaid the locations of existing thermal, nuclear, and hydro power plants worldwide on baseline water stress maps for the year 2000 and maps depicting potential changes in water stress under a variety of climate change scenarios developed by the IPCC. Figures 3-6 show the overlay of existing power plants on a baseline water stress map using data from 2000, and a map showing potential change in water stress by 2025 under IPCC scenario A1B (in general the B1 scenario is the most optimistic of the three scenarios Aqueduct examines, with the A2 scenario is the most pessimistic, and the A1B scenario falling somewhere in between). 1 We conducted analysis for the entire globe, and show maps below zoomed in on two regions of focus: Southeast Asia, which is expected to continue its trend of economic growth in the coming years; and the United States, which is the second largest energy consumer in the world (after China).

The data in these maps show that 17% of global power plant design capacity on the ground today is located in areas of “medium-high”, “high”, or “extremely high” baseline water stress.2 By 2025, 29% of today’s global power plant design capacity will see water stress conditions grow “significantly worse”, “extremely worse”, or “exceptionally worse”3.

The water-food nexus

The World Resources Institute and its partners have also created similar maps overlaying the locations of irrigated crops worldwide onto the same baseline and projected water stress maps used for the water-energy nexus analysis. These maps focus on irrigated crops, which represent about 18.5% of total global cultivated crops. Irrigated crops are of special concern when considering water scarcity because they rely on water diverted away from other potential uses as opposed to natural rainfall. The overlay of agriculture on baseline water stress (2000) and change in water stress (2025) under IPCC scenario A1B for the United States and Southeast Asia is presented in Figures 7-10.

The data in these maps show that around the year 2000, 40% of global irrigated crops were located in areas of “medium-high”, “high”, or “extremely high” water stress. 4 By 2025, 73% of global irrigated crops will see water stress conditions grow “significantly worse”, “extremely worse”, or “exceptionally worse” 5 under the IPCC A1B climate change scenario.

Baseline Water Stress

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Figure 1. Global baseline water stress (ca, 2000).


Change in water stress from baseline (2025)

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Figure 2. Change in water stress from baseline (2025).


USA, Baseline Water Stress and Power Plants

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Figure 3. Overlay of power plants on baseline water stress in the United States: 26% of U.S. power plant design capacity was located in areas of “medium-high”, “high”, or “extremely high” baseline water stress.


USA, Long Term Change in Water Stress by 2025 and Power Plants

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Figure 4. Overlay of power plants on change in water stress in the United States under IPCC scenario A1B in 2025: By 2025, 9% of U.S. power plant design capacity will see water stress conditions grow “significantly worse”, “extremely worse”, or “exceptionally worse”.


Southeast Asia, Baseline Water Stress and Power Plants

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Figure 5. Overlay of power plants on baseline water stress in the Southeast Asia: 19% of SE Asian power plant design capacity was located in areas of “medium-high”, “high”, or “extremely high” baseline water stress.


Southeast Asia, Long Term Change in Water Stress and Power Plants

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Figure 6. Overlay of power plants on change in water stress in the Southeast Asia under IPCC scenario A1B in 2025: By 2025, 55% of SE Asian power plant design capacity will see water stress conditions grow “significantly worse”, “extremely worse”, or “exceptionally worse”.


USA, Baseline Water Stress in areas with Irrigated Agriculture

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Figure 7. Overlay of irrigated crops on baseline water stress in the United States: 40% of irrigated crops in the United States were located in areas of “medium-high”, “high”, or “extremely high” baseline water stress.


USA, Change in Water Stress by 2025 in areas with Irrigated Agriculture

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Figure 8. Overlay of irrigated crops on change in water stress in the United States under IPCC scenario A1B in 2025: 73% of irrigated crops in the United States will see water stress conditions grow “significantly worse”, “extremely worse”, or “exceptionally worse.


Southeast Asia, Baseline Water Stress in areas with Irrigated Agriculture

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Figure 9. Overlay of irrigated crops on baseline water stress in Southeast Asia: 39% of irrigated crops in SE Asia were located in areas of “medium-high”, “high”, or “extremely high” baseline water stress.


Southeast Asia, Change in Water Stress by 2025 in areas with Irrigated Agriculture

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Figure 10. Overlay of irrigated crops on change in water stress in Southeast Asia under IPCC scenario A1B in 2025: 75% of irrigated crops in SE Asia will see water stress conditions grow “significantly worse”, “extremely worse”, or “exceptionally worse.



What do these projections mean for policy-makers?

The maps showcased above indicate that many agriculture- and power generation- intense regions of the world can expect to see a significant increase in water stress conditions by 2025 and beyond. Ensuring that growth in food and energy production can meet the needs of a growing population is a daunting challenge. It is unlikely that anything resembling a business-as-usual approach will allow us to meet the significantly higher food and energy demands currently forecasted for the coming decades.

There are many barriers to effective management of water, food, and energy resources in most locations throughout the world. Some of the common barriers include:

  • Weak and uncoordinated institutional and governance structures. Water management is typically divided up among myriad national agencies that do not adequately coordinate their efforts. Nor do these national agencies coordinate well with state and local agencies. Water, agriculture, and energy policies and management also lack adequate coordination.

  • Legal, regulatory, and enforcement gaps. Laws and regulations governing groundwater use or agricultural pollution, for example, are often absent. Enforcement of water allocations and water rights is typically very difficult as well.

  • Weak market signals and poor incentive systems. Water, food, and energy subsidies, for example, often mask the true value of these resources/commodities, making it impossible to effectively signal scarcity to end users.

  • Lack of information at decision-relevant scales. Local-level information on water, food, and energy – and the linkages between them – are usually absent, making planning, implementation, and tracking of effective policy reform measures nearly impossible.

  • Lack of political will to tackle controversial and costly issues. Water, food, and energy – all life necessities – are usually a political “third rail” which politicians are often reluctant to touch. There are also very powerful and entrenched lobbies that seek to protect the status quo. Infrastructure investments are usually costly and lack glamour, making for very modest political returns.

WRI’s Aqueduct project is working to address these barriers by developing a publicly-available and transparent global water risk database and standard that will inform private sector efforts to manage water sustainably. Aqueduct’s basin-level water risk maps will combine data on nearly two dozen indicators of water risk, supplemented with up to date news stories on water. The data provided by Aqueduct will encourage dialogues between governments, businesses, investors, and communities working toward more equitable, efficient, and sustainable water resources management in water-stressed basins.

The German Government, through its Bonn 2011 Water, Energy, and Food Security Nexus Conference, is addressing some of the political and governance barriers to better management of water, food, and energy resources by offering a platform for discussing and formulating concrete initiatives and strengthening cross-sector coordination and policy making. These and other initiatives represent initial efforts to address what promises to be one of the most significant challenges of our times.


  1. See page 13 the following document for more additional information on these three IPCC scenarios: http://docs.wri.org/aqueduct/freshwater_sustainability_analyses.pdf 

  2. Baseline water stress is defined as the ratio of total annual freshwater withdrawals for the year 2000, relative to expected annual renewable freshwater supply based on 1950-1990 climatic norms. This ratio provides an assessment of the demand for freshwater from households, industry, and irrigated agriculture relative to freshwater availability in a typical year. “Medium-high” corresponds to a ratio of 20-40%; “high” corresponds to a ratio of 40-80%; and “extremely high” corresponds to a ratio of >80%. 

  3. “Significantly worse” means 2-2.8x worse; “”extremely worse” means 2.8-8x worse; and “exceptionally worse” means >8x worse. 

  4. “Water stress” is defined as the ratio of water withdrawal to renewable supply. “Medium-high” corresponds to a ratio of 20-40%; “high” corresponds to a ratio of 40-80%; and “extremely high” corresponds to a ratio of >80%. 

  5. “Significantly worse” means 2-2.8x worse; “”extremely worse” means 2.8-8x worse; and “exceptionally worse” means >8x worse. 

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