Managing the Water-Land-Energy Nexus for Sustainable Development

We live in the Anthropocene1 in which humans have become a major force shaping the environment. Rising incomes and reduced poverty have coincided with the growing demand for goods and services, such as food and energy, which in turn has increased the pressure on natural resources and ecosystems leading to their over-exploitation and degradation. Climate change adds to this predicament, as several climate adaptation and mitigation measures such as irrigation, desalination, or biofuels, are also resource intensive.

In a recent attempt to quantify the limits of global resources, the Planetary Boundaries framework,2 a critical environmental threshold beyond which rapid and unexpected systemic or "regime" shifts may be triggered, was developed. This framework tries to establish global limits for water, land, and energy use (atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration as a proxy), and for other natural resources, such as nutrients or biodiversity.

Current demand and resource use trajectories are threatening to undermine the inclusiveness and sustainability of development. For example, by 2050, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) projects a 70 per cent increase in food production,3 and the World Energy Council (WEC) projects a 100 per cent increase in energy supply.4 These trajectories must be curbed by more efficient use of resources and reduced wastage, as well as demand management.

The priority must be to address current water, energy, and food insecurity in particular, of the world's poorest, to provide a healthy diet, safe water, and access to modern energy for all, going beyond the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). However, this goal should not only be pursued at the household level, but also at the industrial development level to enable economic development for all countries. Meeting these additional demands in closing these gaps poses even stronger resource challenges.

It is likely that the Rio+20 Conference will launch a process to identify Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)5 which would meet both these social and environmental challenges: staying within the environmental "ceiling", or planetary boundaries, and the socio-economic "floor",6 which, combined, define a safe and more equal operating space for humanity. When developing these SDGs, it will be important to recognize the interactions and feedback among planetary boundaries and among SDGs, and also between planetary boundaries and SDGs. For example, efforts to attain food security need to be water, land, and energy smart, which is not generally the case for agricultural intensification; efforts to achieve energy and climate protection goals need to be water and land smart, which is often not the case for renewable or non-conventional energy; and efforts to reach water goals need to be energy and climate smart, which is not the case for desalination or water transfers.

This nexus angle is particularly important given the strong links between sectors, i.e., agriculture, water, energy, environment, which are likely to get even stronger so that externalities across resources become co-constraints of sustainable development. For example, in Jordan, 25 per cent of all electricity is consumed for the supply of water, primarily the pumping of water. In the United States, power generation accounts for about 40 per cent of all water withdrawals. Large scale water transfers in China intended to mitigate water scarcity are energy intensive, partially depending on hydropower which, due to evaporative losses from reservoirs, contributes to water scarcity.

Hence, systemic thinking and integrated solutions -- the nexus approach -- need to guide the development and implementation of SDGs. In fact, the real innovation of SDGs may be in exactly that -- their conjunctive development -- given that most of the individual goals were already formulated in the past in one way or another. The nexus approach also needs to inform the emerging national green economy roadmaps, so that the resulting efficiency gains can help keep the cumulative effect of all national development agendas within the planet's safe operating space.

Understanding the Nexus: How to Take a Nexus Approach

The importance of cross-sectoral links for increasing overall resource use efficiency applies at all levels, from local to national and even global.7 The scientific community is beginning to further refine and map planetary boundaries, and it is also looking at how they are interlinked. Recent work that addresses bilateral links includes the global mapping of:

• water availability and productivity constraints in food production, by LPJmL/WaterSim, which reveals that water productivity, expressed in kilo calories produced per cubic metre of water consumption, varies between countries by an order of magnitude depending on crop mix, agricultural management, and climate;8

• combined water and land constraints in food and bio-energy production by the State of the World's Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture project of FAO,9 which shows that the most severe co-constraints are in parts of China and India; and

• water constraints in power generation by World Resources Institute (WRI), which reveals, for example, that 17 per cent of global power plant design capacity is located in areas of high water stress.10

By consistently integrating these existing assessments, we can develop global scenarios for a new nexus approach, which will complement and advance the work of previous outlooks, such as those of the United Nations Environment Programme, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, FAO, and the World Energy Outlook. This will enable us to map current and future hot spots of available resources and resource productivity across sectors. From such "nexus maps" we can identify the potential to reduce overall resource use by improving the configuration of production patterns and sourcing of inputs, including opportunities associated with trade and foreign direct investment. For example, electricity trade schemes can promote hydropower generation in locations with low water loss and/or high water availability, as in the Nile Basin Initiative, and foreign direct investment can provide knowledge and technologies for co-production of biofuel and food/feed for improved water and land productivity.11

Such a model-based, top-down approach to the nexus needs to be developed alongside a bottom-up approach, in order to build a knowledge base on best practice, policies, and solutions.12 Because these nexus solutions have to be driven by individual institutions, additional incentives and mechanisms need to be established to bridge institutional and sectoral silos. This will reduce negative externalities of short-term sectoral optimization and instead build long-term systemic resilience,13 reduce total demand for resources, and decouple development from resource use. Only then can we meet the challenges of the "great acceleration" and achieve a transition to sustainability that delivers for the poor.

Nexus Solutions

While the nexus principles outlined above are universal, solutions need to be context-specific, and SDGs need to be interpreted to suit the local situation. Developing, transitional, and industrialized countries each require different nexus approaches, including addressing large differences between and within countries in terms of consumption patterns and resource use intensity, leading to new solutions.

For low income countries, the highest priority is to simultaneously close the large water, energy, and food security gaps, which are related to low resource productivity, in particular, to yield gaps in agriculture. These gaps often increase by natural resource degradation, in combination with rapid population growth and weak institutions. Hence, integrated knowledge and technologies are key for sustainable intensification. Green growth in developing countries will continue to depend largely on agriculture. For example, a nexus approach to water, land, ecosystems and energy in the Naivasha basin in Kenya has led to new solutions, including payments for ecosystem services which provide economic incentives for improved resource management.14

Emerging powers, with their rapidly growing economies, a doubling of gross domestic product (GDP) over a 10 to 15 year period, and rapidly growing population and per capita demands, have to embark on more resource efficient development trajectories. The trend in China, India, the Middle East, and North African countries to increasingly solve their resource constraints through better endowed regions, in particular South America and sub-Saharan Africa, must not slow down local nexus solutions within those countries. For example, in Gujarat, India, which is severely constrained in per capita availability of water and land, the so-called Jyotirgam scheme for improved energy access for households and irrigation (water pumping) has significantly reduced groundwater over-exploitation. Through an integrated approach, this scheme has increased energy and food security and has raised Gujarat's GDP growth above that of the rest of India.15

Industrialized countries with their high per-capita resource demands and large external resource footprints (also externalizing resource degradation) will have to reduce consumption levels and wastage. They will also need to mainstream nexus approaches into economic and development cooperation, share innovative technologies, for example on modern renewable energies, and link nexus-conscious institutions with other countries. For instance, Australia's Carbon Credits Act, which provides incentives for afforestation to sequester carbon, and its National Water Initiative, which restricts water intensive afforestations, can be integrated through landscape zoning according to water availability.16

The private and public sectors and civil society have different but complementary responsibilities when implementing nexus principles (ERD 2012). The public sector coordinates, sets the regulatory and incentive framework, and spends public funds. It also needs to make policy more coherent across institutions and sectors -- policy on agriculture, environment, land use, energy, and climate -- while maintaining strong sectoral capacity. Meanwhile, the private sector should drive innovation for more efficient resource use and for sustainably increasing resource supply. If, for example, wind energy can be used to desalinate seawater or brackish water, some drylands may become highly productive in irrigated food production, and/or become carbon sinks. Supply chains, which are largely in the hands of the private sector, need to be managed as "supply nets", in which cross-resource optimization takes place, from production to consumption. Such a supply-net approach, which is facilitated by the generation of more comprehensive nexus knowledge and also appropriate pricing of inputs, can further reduce total resource use through smart sourcing of inputs according to the availability and productivity of resources.

Green agriculture, agro-forestry, and other multi-functional production systems apply a nexus approach for sustainable intensification by reducing external inputs, reusing waste products, and generating co-benefits. In doing so, biomass production can become a central element of a bio or green economy. The co-benefits of such an ecosystem approach can go even further when land is rehabilitated to simultaneously increase productivity and resilience.

While additional capacity would be required for a nexus approach that integrates sectors and enhances cooperation among institutions, we expect that in many cases the resulting transaction costs would be lower than the benefits gained from the reduced trade-offs and additional synergies that the nexus approach would generate.

There is now a strong momentum behind the nexus concept, which combines various sustainability principles that have been developed since the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. The international community, policymakers, practitioners, and scientists can jointly build on the concept in their search for tangible Rio+20 outcomes. As expressed in the MDGs, we suggest that integrated SDGs can align the need for human security with the need to remain within planetary boundaries.

Notes

1 Steffen, W., Crutzen, P.J. & McNeill, J.R. (2007): The Anthropocene: are humans now overwhelming the great forces of nature? Ambio, 36: 614-621.

2 Rockström et al (2009): Planetary Boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity, Nature.

3 FAO (2011): the State of the World's Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture (SOLAW)-Managing Systems at Risk, Earthscan, London.

4 WEC (2007): Deciding the future: Energy Policy Scenarios to 2050, Executive Summary, World energy Council, London, UK.

5 UNCSD (2012): Rio 2012 Issues Brief no.6, Current Ideas on Sustainable development goals and Indicators.

6 Raworth K. (2012): a Safe and Just Space for Humanity, OXFAM Discussion Paper.

7 Hoff H. (2011): Understanding the nexus. Background Paper for the Bonn 2011 Conference: the Water, Energy and Food Security Nexus, SEI, Stockholm.

8 Gerten D., Heinke H., Hoff H., Biemans H., Fader M., Waha K. (2011): global water availability and requirements for future food production, Journal of Hydrometeorology, 12, 5, 885-899.

9 FAO (2011): the state of the world's land and water resources for food and agriculture (SOLAW)-Managing systems at risk, Earthscan, London.

10 Aqueduct (2011): Aqueduct and the Water-Food-Energy Nexus, available at: http://insights.wri.org/aqueduct/2011/11/aqueduct-and-water-food-energy-....

11 FAO (2010): Bioenergy and Food Security: the BEFS analytical framework, Environment and Natural Resources Management Working Paper no 16, Rome.

12 For example, see the nexus resource platform at www.water-energy-food.org

13 Folke C. et al (2011): Reconnecting to the biosphere, Ambio, 40, 719-738.

14 ERD (2012): Confronting Scarcity: Managing Water, Energy and Land for Inclusive and Sustainable Growth, European Report on Development.

15 Shah T., Gulati A., Hemant P., Shreedhar G., Jain R.C. (2009): Secret of Gujarat's Agrarian Miracle after 2000, Economic and Political Weekly, XLIV, 52, 45-55.

16 DCCEE (2011): Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative) Regulations 2011, Canberra, Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency.

References

Aqueduct (2011): Aqueduct and the Water-Food-Energy Nexus, available at: http://insights.wri.org/aqueduct/2011/11/aqueduct-and-water- food-energy-nexus.

DCCEE (2011): Carbon Credits (Carbon farming Initiative) regulations 2011, Canberra, Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency.

ERD (2012): Confronting Scarcity: Managing Water, Energy and Land forInclusive and Sustainable growth, European report on Development2012 to be launched on 16 May 2012.

FAO (2010): Bioenergy and Food Security: the BEFS Analytical Framework, Environment and Natural Resources Management Working Paper No16, Rome.

FAO (2011): The State of the World's Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture (SOLAW)-Managing Systems at Risk, Earthscan, London.

Folke C. et al (2011): Reconnecting to the Biosphere, Ambio, 40, 719-738. GertenD., Heinke H., Hoff H., Biemans
H., Fader M., Waha K. (2011): Global water availability and requirements for future food production, Journal of Hydrometeorology, 12, 5, 885-899.

Hoff H. (2011): Understanding the nexus. Background Paper for the Bonn2011 Conference: the Water, Energy and Food Security Nexus, SEI, Stockholm.

NBI (2011): Nile Basin Initiative Regional Power Trade Project, Final Report, Synopsis.

Raworth K. (2012): A Safe and Just Space for Humanity, OXFAM Discussion Paper.

Rockström et al. (2009): Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity, Nature.

Shah T., Gulati A., Hemant P., Shreedhar G., Jain R.C. (2009): Secret of Gujarat's Agrarian Miracle after 2000, Economic and Political Weekly, XLIV,52, 45-55.

Steffen, W., Crutzen, P.J. & McNeill, J.R. (2007): The Anthropocene: Are humans now overwhelming the great forces of nature? Ambio, 36:614-621.

UNCSD (2012): Rio 2012 Issues Brief no.6, Current Ideas on Sustainable Development Goals and Indicators.

WEC (2007): Deciding the Future: Energy Policy Scenarios to 2050, Executive Summary, World Energy Council, London, UK.