Water, Energy, and Food Nexus


Nowadays, there is a strong connection or nexus between water, energy and food production (WEFN). Water is used almost in all levels of electricity generation, fuel extraction and food production. Energy is required to produce, transport and distribute food; to extract, pump, lift, collect, transport and treat water and wastewaters and to produce fertilizer, harvest crops, and cook our food. In turn, energy can be produced from crops in the form of biofuels, hydropower and thermoelectric plants.

Considering the global population growth, needs on water, energy, and food will drastically increase in future. Although these are interconnected, these systems have been managed more or less separately at national and/or European levels. On the research fields, only two of the three dimensions of the WEFN receive direct attention (water-energy, water-food, or energy-food).

The nexus approach should thus be a strong understanding of the interdependencies among these three systems and how to ensure food, water and energy security for an increasing population. WEFN systems must be resilient, sustainable, and well-managed to satiate the planet’s growing thirst for water, hunger for food, and demand for energy.

Hence, the main scope is to address the WEFN in an integrated and proactive way to increase the efficiency of using energy, water and food production. Many factors necessitate this paradigm shift such as climate change and water scarcity, population growth, introduction of new technologies in WEFN domains, etc. This scope is aligned with three global objectives: climate change adaptation, energy security and sustainable food and agriculture.

Opportunities and challenges

The main challenges are as follows:

  • Water scarcity can be boosted by excessive water use on energy production sites;
  • According to FAO, water consumption is expected to increase for irrigation by 10% by 2050 and according to the U.N., it is likely that food consumption will also increase (specifically meat as the most water-consuming food);
  • The amount of energy used for water withdrawal and extraction, conveyance, distribution and treatment increases because of water scarcity and dependency of water networks on energy;
  • In addition to the regional variability in the water and energy systems, population growth and regional migration trends indicate that the population in areas with water scarcity problem is likely to continue to increase, further complicating the management of energy, food and water systems.
  • Shifts in precipitation and temperature patterns as an impact of climate change, will likely lead to more regional variation in water availability for hydropower production, thermoelectric generation and other energy needs as well as food production trends. Rising temperatures have the potential to increase the demand for electricity for cooling, to decrease the efficiency of thermoelectric generation and to increase water consumption for agricultural crops and domestic use. These changes and variations pose challenges for energy infrastructure resilience.
  • As managing water, energy and food issues need a political, regulatory, economic, environmental, and social approach considering available technologies; the current decision-making process on the European level is complex. Water and food could be of multi-jurisdictional management nature. Nations and localities vary in philosophies regarding water rights. There is also variation across nations in relevant energy policies.
  • At the end, multi-spatial and multi-temporal scales of the WEFN make its modeling difficult, and this generates computational difficulties. It is critical to define appropriate system boundaries and relevant stakeholders as each system boundary will give different results.

The opportunities that arise from the scope explained are as follows:

  1. Optimizing water use efficiency of energy production and storage, electricity generation, irrigation systems and end use systems. A particular attention should be paid to hydropower systems and the optimization of their uses according to local, regional and nation-wide contexts considering uncertain precipitation forecasts due to climate change and food production policy based on land and crop management practices;
  2. Optimizing energy efficiency and water conservation (decreasing losses and consumptions) in water systems (treatment and distribution/conveyance of water, wastewater and stormwater), irrigation systems and end use systems (residential, commercial, industrial);
  3. Enhancing reliability and resilience of energy, water and food systems;
  4. Increasing safe use of nontraditional water sources;
  5. Exploit new energy sources based on water uses (sludge and biogas) and agriculture domain (biofuels);
  6. Promoting energy operations with respect to water quality and ecosystem as well as food production and consumption;
  7. Exploit productive synergies among water and energy systems including renewables, in terms of higher efficiency of water/energy usage, and in terms of economic gains.

The solutions should take into account the needs in terms of water, food and energy considering sub-regional, regional, European and global levels and have impact at the national and global scale by enhancing and integrating data and models to better inform researchers, decision makers, stakeholders and the public.

ARC position and activities

Although, water, energy and agriculture systems are interconnected, they have been managed more or less independently. Considering several current trends such as climate change, population variation, introduction of new technologies in water, energy and irrigation sectors, there is a need for an integrated water-energy-food nexus approach in addition to technological advancements. An integrated, strategic approach can guide technology research and development to address transnational water-energy-food issues and also have impact at the national and global scale. The integration of different data sources and available forecast and estimation models could be considered as a decision-making system. This will help to optimize the efficiency of water uses for energy-food production and energy uses efficiency for water conveyance, distribution and food production. ARC should consider also the involvement in technology development ameliorating the use of water, energy and food production and conservation. It should try to incorporate water into energy and food policymaking process and vice versa. Considering the current state of the art technological advancements, following activities could be mentioned, amongst others, to investigate:

  • Improving household water, energy and food consumption behaviors such as washing and cooking behaviors;
  • Producing non-traditional water sources from energy sources such as crude oil, natural gas, and coalbed methane mining and extraction;
  • Optimizing water use at thermoelectric plants and sustainable hydropower;
  • Optimizing food transport and distribution, decreasing energy consumption;
  • Optimizing fertilizer uses could limit energy consumption for production of food;
  • Optimizing water use in food production and processing by taking into account the resilience of irrigation systems, e.g. optimization of energy consumption in irrigation pumping stations; and enhancing irrigation systems to reduce water consumption based on multi-objective optimization of irrigated land area uses considering a reservoir management approach;
  • Optimizing water consumption for biofuel production from crops based on an economic-environmental point of view;
  • Life cycle assessment of subcomponents of these systems in a holistic approach;
  • Studying the stakeholders’ objectives and their involvement in the decision-making process on WEFN actions.

Steps forward

We participated in the WG of WssTP on Water & Energy nexus in 2016. The focus was on projects and ideas allowing the conservation of produced energy by using water. In addition to this link, considering EIP Water Action groups, we are trying to establish a connection to W4EF – Water for Energy Framework (AG029) group where the main goal is to produce a common terminology and framework for the energy sector to assess its interactions with water. On the European level, two links need to be established: one with Water, Energy and Food group in WssTP and the other with “Energy in Water” initiative