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Triple Threat: Water, Energy and Food Insecurity

One of the most severe droughts in recent years began in India in 2016. The drought affected half of the country, with far-reaching consequences. The crisis was exacerbated by poor management and the intertwined nature of water, energy and food supply. Water levels in India’s 91 reservoirs fell to the lowest point in a decade and water scarcity ravaged energy and agriculture, the largest water users. Without water for cooling, thermal power plants ground to a halt, denying India electricity equivalent to Sri Lanka’s annual power needs.

The drought forced millions of India’s farmer laborers to migrate to overcrowded cities and caused some farmers hit by crop failures and insurmountable debt to commit suicide, leaving behind stigmatized “farm widows.” The situation hasn’t improved much since. As of 2019, approximately 600 million people in India were impacted by the drought as the country battled chronic water stress.

India is not alone in experiencing these challenges. Around the world, water, energy and food shortages often combine to exacerbate conflict and political instability and jeopardize livelihoods. To sustain natural resources and promote human well-being and economic growth, these underlying issues must be tackled together, not in isolation.

Too often, these resources are managed in silos. Though the international development community, particularly in the European Union, has recognized the importance of a water-energy-food nexus approach, operationalizing this approach is not yet mainstream.

This commentary provides decision-makers within the international aid community (e.g., governmental international development agencies, governmental ministries, philanthropic organizations, resource managers and planners) an overview of how climate change, population growth and economic growth are increasing pressure on these limited, connected resources globally, offering examples and pointing out possible solutions.

Only by holistically addressing the water-energy-food nexus can the international development community effectively manage trade-offs and mitigate and adapt to climate change, while protecting the most vulnerable among us.

Effects of Climate Change, Population Growth and Economic Growth Increase Pressure on Limited Resources

Droughts like the one in India are not going away. A recent study suggests climate change has been exacerbating droughts for more than 100 years. While some areas have been getting wetter, much of North and Central America, Europe and East Asia have experienced decreased soil moisture. Anthropogenic climate change is causing more severe droughts and trends are projected to continue.

Of the more than 30 global risks evaluated by the World Economic Forum in 2019, extreme weather events like droughts, natural disasters, water crises, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse and human-made environmental damage rank among the top 10 most likely to occur and have the greatest impact. Climate change was the common element in each of these risks, threatening sustainable development throughout the world.

The international development community has yet to fully absorb these crucial facts.

A few years ago, I interviewed officials from government agencies and development banks about water and agriculture planning. I discovered that few were planning ahead for water-related risks. Some were focused only on the next season; at best they were thinking in terms of a five- or ten-year strategy.

To help them look further ahead, WRI created Aqueduct Food, which provides climatic and socioeconomic development projections of water-related risks to agriculture. Because the drivers and effects of climate change are complex and straddle a multitude of sectors, actionable information like this is critical to effectively manage risk.

At the heart of the matter are our most basic resources: water, energy and food. The “water-energy-food nexus” describes the interconnected and complex nature of these resources, as illustrated by the United Nations in Figure 1. These resources are connected in a chain that is only as strong as its weakest link. The concept of the water-energy-food nexus is not new — it has been discussed in academia and by policymakers for the past decade, but it largely remains just that — a concept.

In India, drought drove water scarcity, which had ripple effects across energy and food security, livelihoods, health and economic development. Without an effective management response, these effects can be devastating.

Understanding, and acting upon, the dynamics of this water-energy-food nexus is critical for sustainable development. This commentary is designed to help policymakers move from understanding to action.

International Development Community Must Adopt a Holistic Approach to the Water-Energy-Food Nexus

Protecting these resources from escalating risks should be at the top of the international development agenda. Yet the world’s growing population and increasing urbanization is putting ever-increasing demand on food, water and energy, which in turn could accelerate climate change.

This leaves us with a seemingly impossible task. Limited water must be managed to provide enough to drink, wash our hands, grow food, produce energy and run businesses. And don’t forget to leave behind enough water for the fish! Already, 17 countries, home to one-fourth of the world’s population, face extremely high water stress. By 2040, this number is predicted to grow to 33.

With a finite amount of water and land, we still must produce more food to feed a growing population. Already, 820 million people go to bed hungry. While farmers, companies and governments figure out how to produce more food, this must not be done at the expense of forests or water resources — already one-third of irrigated cropland is located in areas of extremely high water stress, indicating withdrawals are too high relative to available supply.

Rainfed cropland is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change such as drought and water supply variability. The amount of rainfed cropland facing an extremely high risk of seasonal variability is projected to more than quadruple between 2010 and 2040.

Additionally, more energy will be needed to power developing cities and bring energy access to remote areas of the world, but to limit the impacts of climate change, it must be clean and renewable. Thermal power plants require a large amount of water for cooling. According to a WRI analysis (updated using Aqueduct 3.0 data), one-third of current thermal energy production is in areas under high water stress, threatened by potential water shortages.

As one solution, some governments provide farmers in increasingly dry regions with solar panels to pump groundwater — making more water available to increase yields on existing cropland without creating greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) from fossil fuel-based energy generation. But absent an effective mechanism to prevent over-pumping, the “free” energy generated by these solar panels means farmers can pump endlessly without incurring higher energy bills, causing groundwater supplies to dwindle. Moreover, the land on which solar panels are installed might be better suited for growing crops.

This is just one example of how intertwined water, food and energy issues are; and how solving one or two issues, in this case food production or clean energy, could jeopardize another, such as water security.

A holistic approach to addressing this water-energy-food nexus is easier said than done.
Governance matters — a lot when it comes to water. In the blame game of water, food and energy crises, there is plenty of human error to go around.

At best, government bodies have a disjointed approach that sacrifices one resource concern for another or a bureaucracy that slows action to a crawl. At worst, there is a complete failure of governance that leaves communities so vulnerable and desperate that conflicts erupt over scarce resources. 

Now, communities most vulnerable to water, energy and food risks are facing the coronavirus pandemic. How are three billion people who lack access to handwashing facilities supposed to contend with the coronavirus when they lack clean water to wash their hands, or if they can’t afford food due to supply chain disruptions? It is these people who have the least access to basic resources and services who will be impacted the most.  

These global trends and complex, interwoven dynamics can be challenging to understand. How well can farmers cope in a drought? Are water, food and energy crises unavoidable events that will pass, or are there underlying factors at play? What can the development community learn from these challenges to achieve resilient, sustainable development? 

I’ve studied and experienced firsthand various levels of cooperation — from informal picnic table talks between Jordan and Israel to bureaucratic, multistakeholder approaches like the U.S. Chesapeake Bay Program partnership, which bring decision-makers and stakeholders together to hash out the science and the politics involved in achieving a common vision.

I’ve attempted to distill what I’ve learned from these experiences and more than a decade as a water researcher and practitioner to demonstrate the need for a holistic approach to the water-energy-food nexus, and point the way towards a possible integrated approach.

To illustrate the nature of the problem, I first offer a look at three countries where water, food and energy crises are coming to a head and being further exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. I conclude by suggesting three pillars that can provide the basis for a shared vision that would enable the many institutions addressing different pieces of the puzzle to work together more cohesively across sectors.

Three Countries Experiencing Water, Food and Energy Crises

Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe is experiencing its worst drought in years. The Kariba Dam — which has created Lake Kariba, the largest man-made reservoir in the world — was only at 10% capacity at the end of 2019. Running water has been cut off in some areas to preserve depleting reservoirs. For months, residents of Bulawayo, the country’s second-largest city, have queued for up to 12 hours for water delivered by tanker trucks.

Meanwhile, health experts are advising handwashing as one of the best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19. “We’re trying,” writes Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi in his “Virus Diary.” “But we’re running out of water again and I don’t know when the water truck is going to be back.” 

These low water levels are also causing power shortages. Zimbabwe generates more than half of its electricity from hydropower. But if the water isn’t flowing, the turbines can’t turn. Some residents have had their power cut off for up to 18 hours per day, for months on end.  

As a result, harvests have been devastated in what was once the breadbasket of AfricaLess than 5% of the country’s cropland is irrigated, so most crops are at the mercy of rains. Currently about two-thirds of the country’s rainfed cropland faces high to extremely high risk of seasonal variability, and this is projected to increase to 98% by 2040.

According to Aqueduct Food, high seasonal variability is the greatest water-related threat to the country’s top-producing crops of sugarcane, maize and cassava. The World Food Programme has declared Zimbabwe is facing “one of world’s top global food crises,” as more than four million people, one-third of the country’s population, struggle to feed themselves and their families.

With two-thirds of its workforce in agriculture, livelihoods are also at stake. Zimbabweans are not just queuing for water, but also for food. This has been a daily part of life for some time now, but the pandemic has exacerbated the crisis. Residents are faced with choosing to risk contracting the virus or staying home and dying from hunger.  

At the same time, the country’s economy is being battered by both high rates of unemployment and soaring inflation. Experts predict Zimbabwe will fall deeper into a recession as a result of the compounding issues of water shortages, hunger, coronavirus and astronomical inflation.  

Water challenges — and their ripple effects — are not new to this region. According to the World Resources Institute’s (WRI) Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas, most of Zimbabwe is considered extremely high risk for unimproved or no drinking water, meaning a large portion of the population does not have access to safe drinking water or to water at all. Chronic water scarcity makes it very difficult to get through a drought year, let alone several years of drought paired with a pandemic.  

Moreover, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) identified the region as a hot spot for elevated risks due to extreme temperature increases and reduced rainfall. Climate change is no doubt behind the drought, which is, in part, responsible for widespread hunger (along with poor economic conditions, high inflation and — more recently — the impacts of the coronavirus). While the economic and health conditions will likely improve over time, chronic water scarcity and climate change-driven challenges in Zimbabwe are here to stay. 

Cambodia

The Mekong River is the world’s largest freshwater fishery. About 60 million people earn their livelihoods supplying 20% of the world’s freshwater fish. But in 2019, the monsoons did not come. Now, after more than a year, the combination of a severe drought and upstream hydropower dams have brought water levels to record lows. Fisheries have collapsed, taking jobs and food supplies with them.

In 2015, Cambodia faced a record drought, affecting most of its 25 provinces and 2.5 million people. Photo credit: Alex Berger/Flickr.

“We can’t catch anything,” San Savuth, a fisherman, told Reuters. “There is no water, there is no fish.” 

The lack of rain has hampered crop production as well. Fish and rice are staples and rainfed subsistence rice farming is commonplace. Rice is a water-intensive crop, so with limited water availability, rice paddies have been negatively impacted.

Limited availability means food prices skyrocket. Usually, food supplies can be imported when local harvests decline. But COVID-19 has created roadblocks like export bans and travel limitations, disrupting supply chains. Between crop shortages, collapsed fisheries and COVID-19, Cambodia is facing an acute food crisis risk.  

Low water levels are also disrupting power suppliesForty percent of the country’s electricity comes from hydropower. Without adequate river flow, the turbines can’t turn and energy can’t be generated. As a result, Cambodia has experienced power outages over the past couple of years on top of these other challenges. Any food that can be stocked is at risk of spoilage if it can’t be refrigerated or frozen.  

When the rains do come, will food supplies, livelihoods and reliable electricity return?

Cambodia’s climate is predisposed to recurring risk of drought and other weather extremes. Aqueduct ranks the country 11th globally for risk of drought. The majority of the country’s rice production faces medium to high risk of drought and seasonal variability of water supply.

Cambodia is also considered to be among the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate change. By 2040, nearly all cropland in Cambodia may be at high risk of seasonal variability of water supply. Rainfed rice, cassava and maize occupy most cropland, and WRI projects that more than 98% of this land will be in areas of high seasonal variability, which could indicate more extreme droughts and floods.

Crop harvests will likely be devastated without adequate mitigation measures like rainwater harvesting and weather forecasting systems that effectively reach farmers. And with continued population growth and economic development, there will be more demand for water and more damming of upland rivers, leaving Cambodia in a vulnerable position downstream. 

Pakistan

Pakistan has experienced a string of natural disasters that have severely undermined its water and food security. The 2018 monsoon brought 70% less rainfall than normal, and continued lack of rainfall coupled with economic woes devastated food supplies in 2019. In 2020, vast swarms of locusts have devoured crops and COVID-19 is hammering the world’s fifth most populous country. With the Water, Peace and Security Partnership’s Global Early Warning tool, WRI and its partners projected that Pakistan could face conflict in 2020 over scarce water resources.

Despite recurring droughts, Pakistan is a huge producer and exporter of crops, particularly wheat and rice. The country relies on a large irrigation system, drawing water primarily from the Indus River Basin and dwindling aquifers to irrigate more than 90% of its cropland. The vast irrigation system is extremely inefficient, losing more than half the water that runs through its network of canals and pipes. 

Pakistan cannot afford to waste a drop. The Indus River Basin aquifer is the second most depleted in the world. And according to Aqueduct, it faces extremely high water stress, with water withdrawals exceeding 80% of available supply, on average. 

While export crops consume most of the country’s water, only one-fifth of the population has access to safe drinking water. At the same time, much of the population faces high levels of food insecurity and malnutrition.  

Impoverished rural areas are being hit hard. Pakistan’s farmers, mostly subsistence farmers, lack water to irrigate in times of drought, so they must purchase food in local markets where prices have skyrocketed. For some, just feeding their families requires an astounding two-thirds of their expenses. Others, like Rafiya Bibi, a farmer in Pipli Pahar in the central Punjab province, are left with loans they cannot repay after locusts destroyed their harvest. “All I can do is cry,” she said. In extreme cases, conflicts over water have turned violent.  

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the situation. For example, pastoralists in Tharparkar, in southeastern Pakistan, traditionally migrate every year in search of new pasture, water sources for their livestock and jobs harvesting crops. This year, coronavirus-induced travel restrictions have blocked their migration. Stuck in one place, the pastoralists can’t feed their cattle or earn money harvesting crops.   

After the pandemic subsides, severe water challenges will remain. Pakistan is projected to be one of the countries hardest hit by climate change, with droughts and floods expected to become increasingly severe. Ninety percent of irrigated cropland is projected to face high to extremely high levels of water stress, a daunting figure for a country so reliant on irrigation to grow its crops. 

To try to get ahead of these water challenges, the government has begun constructing the Diamer Bhasha dam on the Indus River, which is poised to be one of the largest dams in the country. The dam has sparked criticism on ecological, political and economic grounds. 

For example, the dam is situated on the Central Asian faultline, which averages 300 earthquakes per month. Moreover, the dam is being built in contested territory; India claims the land as its own and has repeatedly raised objections to its construction. Controversial issues with the location aside, water experts question the large investment for a mega-dam. There has been little effort to ensure existing water supplies are more effectively managed, for example, by improving the irrigation efficiency.

Pakistan’s government is also facing significant criticism for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The World Health Organization has described the government’s ability to deal with the crisis as “weak,” as positivity rates soar and the health system struggles to keep up. Economic and political troubles have long plagued Pakistan and are likely contributing to the country’s food and water insecurities. 

The water, food and energy crises these three countries face are of the utmost urgency. But unless the longer-term, underlying reasons are addressed, these kinds of calamities could become the new normal. Water, food and energy security; public health; and livelihoods hang in the balance.

International Development Community Must Get Ahead of Complex, Global Risks

Just as no single driver causes water, energy or food insecurity, no single solution will prevent it. There are many promising on-the-ground interventions, such as soil and water conservation measures and technological advances like irrigation efficiency or storage that help provide water security and, in turn, food and energy security.

Water scarcity remains a major problem in Pakistan, with the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources issuing a warning that if the government does not take action, the country will run out of water by 2025. Photo credit: IWMI/Flickr.

Many experts point to new technologies and big data as potential solutions. Recent advances in real-time weather data help farmers decide when to plant or to move their livestock to new pastures. Development agencies can bring such information to farmers, as CGIAR has been doing in Africa. Equipping farmers with such information can increase yields and ultimately food security and climate resilience.

Another example is rainwater harvesting. Rural Kenyans have installed rainwater storage tanks as a way to mitigate risks from increasingly unpredictable rainfall. The collected rain provides water for the household and for crops. As the coronavirus necessitates even greater water use to prevent its spread, demand for fresh water is high and these tanks are even more critical.  

At a local scale, solutions like these hold great promise for staving off the acute impacts of drought and unreliable rainfall. Investing in them are important but insufficient. Many water, energy and food crises are longer lasting than one or two droughts. To get ahead of complex, chronic resource insecurity, the development community needs ambitious, systemic solutions that take a nexus approach.

Although the research community has made great strides in defining and understanding this water-energy-food nexus, there is yet to be a comparable advancement in effective nexus management.

How to Effectively Manage the Water-Energy-Food Nexus

Drawing from experts’ recommendations and my own experience in the water and agriculture sector, I suggest three pillars of effective water-energy-food nexus management: knowledge, governance and cooperation. Together, I believe these pillars would provide a more solid foundation to holistically, efficiently and collaboratively invest in on-the-ground solutions.

1. Knowledge: Enhance data and information collection, development, management and sharing.

The interlinkages among water, energy and food are complex and good data are often lacking. The scientific community struggles to fully understand the many facets of these resource concerns individually, let alone as part of a nexus with social and economic factors layered in. But this is exactly what is needed to take a holistic and equitable approach to managing water-energy-food insecurity.

The development community needs nexus data on many levels — from local to global — to target high-priority locations, evaluate co-benefits and trade-offs and examine current conditions and future projections. It can help augment the amount of reliable, accessible and actionable data by enhancing existing data collection and storage, investing in new monitoring and modeling where data gaps exist and supporting the translation of data into actionable information.

For example, WRI is working with local experts in Ethiopia to develop a model for water risk analysis using locally available data. This model is intended to help decision-makers incorporate water and water-related climate risk information into development decisions across sectors, such as during development planning processes.

Decision-makers can then use these data to analyze the nexus to inform investment and development decisions. The research community and local stakeholders should participate in knowledge enhancement to ensure decision-makers and water users are informed by a shared understanding of nexus dynamics — and socioeconomic factors — in their regions.   

2. Governance: Strengthen institutional operations and empower decision-makers.

With enhanced data on nexus issues, better understanding of what causes them and proper science-policy linkages, governments and other institutions will be better equipped to manage resources. The challenge is to ensure responsive, coherent and equitable governance — with an appropriate sense of urgency.

Efforts to address water, energy and food insecurity must look beyond the here and now and  strive to mitigate chronic and trending risks due to climate change. Long-term planning will be critical for achieving sustainable development in the face of growing climate risks and demands on resources. National and local governments must face the urgency and importance of these interconnections and empower decision-makers to act accordingly.

Institutions from the local to regional scale should collaborate on water, energy and food security strategies, ensuring buy-in at all levels of government. This will also provide necessary capacity building to empower decision-makers to act effectively and with a sense of urgency.

Decision-makers will need to be equipped with new tools, frameworks and processes. For example, institutions could leverage data to develop and employ integrated investment evaluation methods. Tools like these can inform what the international development community should invest in — for example, small-scale storage with supplemental irrigation investments targeted at smallholder farmers may do more for food security and poverty alleviation than large-scale commercial irrigation for commodity exports.

Such integrated methods would ensure that decision-makers across ministries and other government agencies assess water, food and energy interventions with a common lens, reducing unintended harm and promoting co-benefits. Comprehensive evaluation methods should also promote social equity and economic development, since livelihoods and human well-being are dependent on how resources are managed.

3. Cooperation: Promote regional and cross-sectoral coordination and cooperation.

Water is local but it knows no borders. The best planning and management in a single place or within a single sector is fruitless if done in isolation. Traditionally, investments in water, energy and food infrastructure have been made separately, sacrificing efficiencies and risking counterproductivity. Cooperation among all decision-makers is absolutely critical, particularly as demand for scarce resources continues to grow.

From the picnic table talks on the Jordan River basin to more formalized dialogues on the Chesapeake Bay, cooperative approaches can take many forms. But at the heart of the matter lies a common understanding of the problem(s) and a pathway to achieve a common vision. With a shared strategy, all stakeholders can agree to the terms around water use and ecological flow commitments, ensuring that, at a catchment scale, there will be enough clean water to produce food, generate energy and meet other needs.

There is no silver bullet, but perhaps there is a silver lining to the global crisis we’re facing. Experts are calling for a “great reset” in order to build back better. Trillions of dollars will be spent on coronavirus recovery.

The international development community has a window of opportunity to turn the status quo on its head, to think about sustainability and social issues holistically across sectors and borders, to engage all stakeholders and decision-makers, to ensure no one is left behind and to think beyond preparing for, or recovering from, the next drought or flood and instead to be more proactive and resilient.

This opportunity should be seized because in many cases we won’t just be facing another drought but an accelerating trend. The international development community cannot afford to keep kicking this down the road. The time for integrated action to address the water-energy-food nexus is now. I hope this commentary will serve as a catalyst.

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