The ‘perfect storm’ of problems around water, energy and food

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Dr Alma López-Avilés is a research fellow working on the energy feasibility project for the Local Nexus Network at the Centre for Environmental Strategy, University of Surrey, UK.
Dr Alma López-Avilés is a research fellow working on the energy feasibility project for the Local Nexus Network at the Centre for Environmental Strategy, University of Surrey.

A ‘perfect storm’ of problems around water, energy and food shortages is the phrase that was used by Professor Beddington[i], former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government, in 2009.  He pointed out that based on a number of studies, these shortages will lead to public unrest and international conflict in the near future, unless 50% more food, 50% more energy and 30% more freshwater are available by 2030. In his speech, Professor Beddington highlighted the need to look jointly at water, energy and food while reducing global warming and adapting to climate change impacts.

Since then, a number of projects outlining the main problems of the connections between (or nexus) of water-energy-food and how to tackle them, are developing in the UK and elsewhere. Some of the nexus issues have been recognised in the past, but there are underlying difficulties with nexus studies in that the issues and their interdependencies are complex and vary in scale. They also mean different things for different people depending on their circumstances and geographical settings.

For example, in developing countries water, food and energy resources are often insufficient to meet the needs of all sectors of the population, and it is predicted that the greatest impacts of climate change will be experienced in many of these already stressed regions (e.g. sub-Saharan Africa, flood-prone mega-deltas in Asia etc.). Thus, work on the nexus in these geographies has to be closely linked to development and infrastructure projects where the synergies between food, energy, water, health, education, social mobility, gender and equality must be brought together.

 

Washed coffee beans in Ethiopia.
Washed coffee beans in Ethiopia.

 

Water and food tend to be strongly linked both in subsistence agriculture and agribusinesses. For example in the process of washing coffee beans in Yirgalem, Ethiopia. Coffee is an important crop for the Ethiopian economy, is highly appreciated and vastly consumed within the country, and is also Ethiopia’s main export. In addition, the complex interdependencies can be illustrated with the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. The flow of the River Abay (Blue Nile) has been diverted to generate hydro-electricity.

The Blue Nile waterfalls in the dry season - Tana, Ethiopia.
The Blue Nile waterfalls in the dry season – Tana, Ethiopia.

 

Climate resilience and green economy policies in Ethiopia are driving the development of large hydro-electric dams in the country. But the proliferation of hydro-electric dams and agribusinesses is creating conflicts among water-users with the majority living with only limited and unreliable access to water and energy sources e.g. charcoal for cooking.

 

Cooking indoors with charcoal in a typical household in Ethiopia with no access to running water.
Cooking indoors with charcoal in a typical household in Ethiopia with no access to running water.

 

In developed economies nexus projects are emerging that focus on finding alternatives to the conventional centralised (often national) water supply and energy generation options that may help make use of local resources and maximise resource efficiency. These technologies can help reduce bills and negative environmental impacts while also helping to generate local jobs by decentralising processes.

An example of efficiency in agro-industrial processes in the UK is tomatoes being grown using a hydroponics system where nutrient-rich water solution replaces the soil. This system consumes minimal amounts of water and nutrients which are recirculated, whilst the greenhouse temperature is automatically regulated to optimise energy inputs. Also, CO2 from boiler emissions is fed back into greenhouses via pipes to help the crops to ripen.

 

CO2 is fed back into the greenhouses via pipes.
CO2 is fed back into the greenhouses via pipes.

 

We can illustrate the issue of scale with the example of bread. We consider small scale as local manufacturing (e.g. craft bread making in Oxfordshire), and large scale as national manufacturing (e.g. supermarket sliced bread in the UK). However, we also need to consider the global context. This is because even local-scale food manufacturing options cannot be fully detangled from global supply chains.

Globalisation means that local manufacturing processes often depend on global markets, prices and supply chains, for example for the supply of wheat for locally crafted organic bread in the UK, or the local grinding of coffee beans grown in Ethiopia.

Therefore, we can talk about the respective sets of problems and opportunities for the small and large scales of the nexus in at least two broad geographical settings: developing and developed economies. However, increasingly globalised supply chains bring together the interdependencies between developed and developing economies, and so that the local scale is not always truly ‘local’.

Given the complexities around the nexus, it seems advisable to outline the type of interdependencies to be studied (i.e. to describe the nexuses within the nexus). It is also important to clearly define the scope and scale of any nexus study for the benefit of participants and communities involved, whilst recognising that almost always there are global scale dimensions associated with food, water and energy.

 

[i] Beddington J. (2009) ‘Food, energy, water and the climate: a perfect storm of global events?’ In Conference presentation given to the Sustainable Development UK Annual Conference, QEII Conference Centre, London, 19 March 2009. See http://www.bis.gov.uk/assets/goscience/docs/p/perfect-storm-paper.pdf