Water-Energy-Food Nexus: Beyond Triple Bottom Line Analysis

by Kristi Peters Snider

What will it take to bring about a global sobriety that will lead to the levels of cooperation necessary to effect the changes required to curb emissions, enhance energy efficiency, reduce hunger, and eradicate poverty? The incentives are there; the melting ice caps, extinction of species, and inequity in where environmental impacts are caused versus where they are more directly felt. We are often unaware of the damage our consumption causes to the biosphere until it is too late, and furthermore society is slow to adopt new technologies or innovations geared toward efficiency. Historically, we have only looked for ways to become more efficient when we have completely depleted a resource, or if a change to efficiency is more economic. Will we have to succumb to the tragedy of the commons (in some catastrophic way) before we have the motivation necessary to seriously invest in and commit to innovative ideas that will predicate transformational change? Some purport that we have not seen actions translating into substantial change because of ineffective dissemination of information and a general fear of things that we either do not completely understand or are afraid to acknowledge. Still others blame the “lock in” or modus operandi of existing social, economic, political, and technological structures that drive our day to day actions and decisions.

Progress has been made in the sustainable development journey, particularly in areas like renewable energy and energy conservation, integrated water resource management, and food production. Many governments, corporations, and small businesses have changed their operations and practices to produce more sustainable outcomes, and there is increasing awareness among consumers about the life cycle impact of products. However global emissions continue to rise and environmental catastrophes continue to happen; whether they be caused by man as in the case of the BP disaster, or nature as in the case of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Forward thinking government, industry, academic, and interest groups across the globe are coming together to gain a wider perspective and broader understanding of the consequence of our impacts not only on the planet, but on humanity. This wider perspective goes beyond the typical triple bottom line analysis to a human rights approach that takes into account the universal right to food, water, and energy. This approach crosses industry silos and encompasses the system complexities that exist for policy makers and ultimately cause inefficiencies in change.[1] This wider perspective has been framed as a relationship between water security, energy security, and food security or the water-energy-food nexus and was the focus of Bonn 2011, Planet under Pressure, and has significant focus at the upcoming Rio +20 Summit.

The nexus is a model of integrated multi-stakeholder resource planning with a long term outlook that highlights the interplay between water security, food security and energy security. Food production requires water and energy, food processing and distribution require energy, water extraction and distribution requires energy, energy extraction requires water. All three areas are exacerbated by climate change, population growth, geopolitical pressures, economic pressures, and environmental issues.[2] A crisis in any one of the three areas will instigate social unrest, and with the global population expected to reach 8 billion by 2025, the water-energy-food nexus is a global risk that threatens human, economic, and political security.[3]

I posit that we have already experienced the global sobriety needed to effect change, and that we are proactively working toward identifying the most efficient strategies through multi-stakeholder collaboration and global think tank roundtables. Examining the interplay between water, food, and energy security and incorporating external influences on the system will theoretically promote the collective understanding of the complex issues faced and assist both stakeholders and policy makers advance the research, innovation, and policy necessary to drive change.

[1] Bonn2011 Conference: The Water, Energy, Food Security Nexus – Solutions for a Green Economy.  Retrieved May 27 from: http://www.water-energy-food.org/documents/bonn2011_policyrecommendations.pdf

[2] Bonn2011 Conference: The Water, Energy, Food Security Nexus – Solutions for a Green Economy.  Retrieved May 27 from: http://www.water-energy-food.org/documents/bonn2011_policyrecommendations.pdf

[3] World Economic Forum. Global Risk 2011: The Energy-Water-Food Nexus. Retrieved May 27 from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LFViG2sKGtA