Solving the Water, Energy and Food Security Puzzle

Note: This post originally appeared on the Bonn2011 Food, Water and Energy Security Nexus Conference blog.  The Bonn2011 Nexus Conference, which takes place November 16-18 in Bonn, Germany, will "bring together a broad range of stakeholders from the water, energy and food sectors in an effort to improve understanding of the interdependencies and develop a joint perspective on the common challenges."

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What are the most important initiatives that you would recommend to address the interconnections within the water, energy and food security nexus?

That was the question we posed to three professionals working in their particular niche of the nexus in the United States. Their responses below highlight three key needs for us all in the international community to better understand and act upon the nexus:

  • Acknowledge the world’s resource limits;
  • Understand that past trends are less likely to predict future conditions;
  • Explain these complex interconnections to the public on a personal level.

Heather Cooley
Program Co-Director, Pacific Institute


The era of abundance is ending, being replaced by the era of limits. Across the U.S., conflicts between water, energy and food security are increasing, yet our policies and management decisions still reflect 20th-century approaches. In particular, water, food and energy policies are rarely integrated and are based upon the assumption that these resources will remain cheap and plentiful. For example, the federal government, through mandates and subsidies for corn production, has massively increased ethanol production, with little consideration of impacts on food prices or water supply and quality. Similarly, efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions through carbon capture and storage or through expansion of natural gas production through “fracking” are pursued with little knowledge of or regard for their water implications.

Integrated planning and decision making are needed, based on:

  • High-quality, reliable data;
  • Sound science;
  • Interdisciplinary analysis; and
  • Multi-stakeholder, collaborative processes.

Such efforts must be applied to all policy and management decisions, from efficiency standards to subsidies and other financial incentives. Indeed, some “unintended consequences” of our biofuel policies result directly from lack of communication and coordination among water, energy and agricultural planning and decision-making processes. Trade-offs in priorities may be required, but failure to integrate will merely result in shifting one crisis for another.

Allan Frei
Deputy Director, CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities


Any initiative to address interconnections within the water, energy and food security nexus in the U.S. should include a paradigm shift that has already been adopted by the hydrologic community. The paradigm of stationarity – the assumption that past conditions could be used to reasonably estimate future conditions and by which water resources have traditionally been managed – is now widely dismissed. (See “policy forum” piece in Science magazine in 2008 titled “Stationarity is Dead: Whither Water Management” published by a group of leading hydrologists.)

This means that our natural systems, such as climate and land cover, as well as our human systems, such as the global political and economic systems, may not be reliably counted on to perform similarly in this century as they did in the past. This paradigm shift affects the work of water managers, and should affect many of our food and energy planning activities as well.

Accompanying this shift is a host of complications and uncertainties that should be folded into our analytical framework. For example, water supply management for large cities has functioned successfully by virtue of their water managers' expertise and experience. However, changing temperatures, precipitation patterns, hydrologic cycles and land use in watersheds may require planners to consider conditions that affect water quantity and quality, riparian ecology and economic activity in watersheds that have no analogue in the past.

Kyle Rabin
Program Director, Water and Energy Programs, GRACE Communications Foundation

To advance the goal of integrating planning, policy and management of water, agriculture and energy to achieve security of all three, it is critical to explain to the public how these systems intersect, and why greater coordination is necessary. A well-coordinated, comprehensive and collaborative educational program can effectively reach a significant number of people. The objectives of such a program would be to explain the:

  • Processes involved in providing water, food and energy and achieving security for each;
  • Interconnections among the three systems;
  • Reasoning behind planning, policy and management integration;
  • Risks of the lack of and benefits of increased integration; and
  • Necessary actions to achieve integration.

An educated public would be more receptive to consumer-level changes required to achieve water, energy and food security, which is central to a sustainable future for all nations.

One helpful way to illustrate the nexus is through "water footprinting." Water is embedded in the food we eat, the energy we use and the products and materials we need. Making these complex interconnections understood on a personal level is an essential step in garnering public support for what are sure to be difficult policy initiatives ahead.

Finally, a successful “Nexus in a nutshell” educational program would put great emphasis on:

  1. Collaboration among nations, various levels of governments, academia, philanthropic groups, NGOs, the investment community and corporations and businesses.
  2. Information-sharing through websites, clearinghouses and social media to encourage open dissemination of ideas and to foster collaboration.

The Bonn2011 Conference sets an excellent precedent by embodying both of these educational components.

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