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Where are we with the water–energy–food nexus?

One of the things I noted from the discussions at the recent Dresden Nexus Conference, organised by our friends at the UN University FLORES* is that climate change is very much back on the agenda. 

Water energy nexusThis is no surprise, with the COP21 meeting in Paris coming up at the end of the year, professionals and experts across all sectors are talking about the way that climate change is affecting policy-making and development. 

We will be talking about climate change ourselves, at the upcoming World Hydropower Congress in Beijing. For example, we will look at what climate resilience means for project developers, and how green bonds can spur the deployment of low-carbon technologies. 

But before Beijing, the Dresden conference was an opportunity to highlight some key points with regard to the current state of discussion on the water–energy–food nexus:

  • Understanding climate change is fundamental to energy planning. All energy sources and technologies will be directly or indirectly affected by climate change. In the case of renewables, increased atmospheric temperatures will cause changing wind patterns, cloud cover, precipitation, soil fertility and water availability. Governments must take leadership in recognising the need to encourage climate resilience considerations into future energy planning. 
  • Renewable technologies can complement each other in climate-constrained world. But the complementarity must be well thought-through. This is why policy-makers should use subsidies to encourage particular technologies with extreme care, and only after cross-sectoral analyses. A good example of a well-functioning mixed renewable system is Iceland, where all heat and power is delivered through synergy between: geothermal, hydropower and wind. Climate change is included in forward planning, with modelling determining long-term forecasting and investment decisions. 
  • Hydropower will continue to have a special place in energy, food and water planning. Stored water will take on an even greater importance when climate change is factored into the increasing demand for water, food and energy. The addition of climate adaptation services, such as drought protection and flood attenuation, may well be an additional expectation in the future, with some notable cases already in place. 
  • It is possible to manage uncertainty around the water-energy-food nexus. For example, the drive to make land more productive for agriculture tend to increase the demand for energy. We can model the energy intensity of fertilisers or that of irrigation systems, to help inform decision-making on land use and crop selection. But these tools need to be refined and made more accessible. 
  • Energy is a key element of the nexus. If we are able to provide affordable energy in a socially- and environmentally-acceptable way, we will also improve our ability to manage water, soil and waste, because energy underpins all human activities. 
  • Steps towards a circular economy require further priority in research and implementation. Waste-to-energy refers to the conversion of non-recyclable waste materials into useable heat, electricity or fuel through a variety of processes, such as incineration, gasification and landfill gas recovery. Waste-to-energy and energy recovery require more attention, and win-win examples need to be promoted more widely.
  • We must share risk more equitably. Planning development while taking into consideration the impact on food, energy and water (what we call a “nexus approach”) poses the question of responsibility. When a greater number of stakeholders and sectors become involved in the decision-making process, policy-makers and developers need to pay special attention to risk and responsibilities, and ensure that both are shared equitably. 
  • We must improve information flows. One of the biggest hurdle to implementing a “nexus approach” is the lack of information and communication across traditional geographic boundaries and sectors. Some organisations may have a special role in facilitating these exchanges, and I think in particular of what IHA has been doing as an organisation – bringing together all parties to pool knowledge and to factor in multiple perspectives. 

Richard Taylor speaking in Dresden

* United Nations University Institute for Integrated Management of Material Fluxes and Resources