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The crucial water-energy nexus teeters on the precipice of global concern, where it has for too long been ignored or marginalized for the sake of short-term goals or shortsighted political agendas, according to experts across a wide array of disciplines, industry and non-governmental organizations.

Water and energy are the prime factors in a complex calculus that sustains life as we know it. The two are inextricably linked. Water is needed for almost all forms of energy production, and we need energy to treat and transport water. Both are needed to produce food.

This water-energy nexus sits at the core of two crucial triads: water-energy-food and water-energy-sanitation. But the nexus has reached a crisis level, says John W. Ashe, president of the 68th Session of the U.N. General Assembly. And addressing that crisis is the preeminent development challenge of our world, Ashe said last month during a speech.

“Addressing this nexus of water, sanitation and sustainable energy is not just a matter of grave concern, it is a matter of moral imperative for the entire international community because we need to ensure that access to clean and safe water, sanitation services and sustainable energy services are provided without further delay,” Ashe said.

A young girl fetches murky water on March 22, 2012 from a hole dug near a dried well in Jamam, South Sudan, where chronic water shortages for some 35,000 refugees sparked an increase in diarrhea as people dig for dirty water. Photo: HANNAH MCNEISH/AFP/Getty Images

Today the water-energy nexus is stressed to dangerous, nearly unsustainable levels. If the water-energy nexus collapses consequences would snowball into nothing short of catastrophe. This is neither the stuff of science fiction or wild speculation, but the brutal truth born of statistics and real world circumstances played out today in real time across the geopolitical stage of every nation state.

By 2035 global energy consumption will increase by 35 percent, while water consumption by the energy sec­tor will increase by 85%, putting an even greater strain on already scarce water resources.

According to the United Nations Development Program, more than a billion people (about one in six worldwide) have no access to safe drinking water, 2.5 billion have no adequate sanitation and 1.4 billion people have no electricity. More people worldwide have cell phones than toilets; some 1.1 billion people defecate in the open. And according to Ashe 3,000 children die every day due to water-related illness.

By 2025, an estimated 3.4 billion people will live in water-scarce countries. Water scarcity knows no prejudice—it affects rich and poor countries alike, Daniel P. Loucks writes in his research paper “Managing Water for Life.” More than a third of the world’s population is water stressed, writes Loucks. “If we assume ‘business as usual’ forecasts by 2050 about 40 percent of the projected global population of 9.4 billion is expected to be facing water stress or scarcity,” Loucks writes.

Water scarcity is impacting power production worldwide:

In the U.S. several power plants have had to shut down or reduce power generation due to low water flows or high temperatures. In India, a thermal power plant recently had to shut down due to severe water shortage.France has been forced to reduce or halt energy production in nuclear power plants due to high water temperatures threatening cooling processes during heat waves. Recurring and prolonged droughts are threatening hydropower capacity in many countries, such as Sri Lanka, China and Brazil.

Nuclear plant cooling tower

A hungry planet is also a thirsty one. About 70 percent of all the freshwater used each year is devoted to agriculture, 16 percent is used for energy and industry and 14 percent is used for domestic purposes. By 2030, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization says water scarcity could cause annual grain losses equivalent to 30 percent of current world consumption at the very time we will likely need 70 percent more food.

And unless we change the way we use water we could be staring into a face of a 40 percent gap between global demand and what can be sustainably supplied, says Dominic Waughray, senior director for Environmental Initiatives for the World Economic forum in a blog post.

Same Act, Different Scene

In spite of all the foreboding facts and figures and prognostications, we’ve been here before.

“Human societies have always existed at the fringe of sustainability,” said Upmanu Lall, director, Columbia Water Center during a World Economic Forum panel session. “Our people have found ways to exploit the resources locally available to them to the utmost extent before they move on,” he said. “The problem we face today is that we’ve reached the limit of where we can move to and that’s really what’s driving the climate change issue.”

No discussion of the water-energy nexus is complete without mentioning the effect of climate change. “Knowledge of the nexus, in the face of a changing climate, is today limited, as data, processes and integrated decision aid tools are lacking… and past knowledge bases may no longer be reliable,” according to the World Economic Forum.

There’s no doubt climate change is stressing the nexus. The impacts that climate change will have will differ greatly by region, the WEF says, though developing countries will “feel the brunt” of the impact.

The impact on energy will be just as dramatic, the WEF says, noting that new infrastructure investments needed to deal with increased energy needs steaming from climate change (such as providing additional water in the face of declining groundwater tables) “will pose additional adaptation risks and challenges, especially for the poorer and more vulnerable sections of society.”

The WEF adds, however, that other factors, such as rapid changes in population and socio-economic development over the next two decades, “will have a much stronger and immediate impact on water and food security.”

Nexus Thinking

Part of the problem of balancing the increasingly complex water problem, says Lall, is that “most of the water is controlled by the public sector.” Here in the U.S., for example, six to ten government organizations have some responsibility over water and do not talk with each other, he said during a WEF presentation.

“The water community no longer exists in a box; rather it swims in an aquarium, able to see the other sectors, but not effectively reaching and interacting with them,” was one of the over-arching conclusions to come out of World Water Week in Stockholm last September. “[A]lthough we are aware of other sectors, we are still not properly engaging and addressing them,” the meeting’s final briefing document says. However, the “good news” is that many cross-sectoral initiatives and partnerships are underway.

Speaking at a WEF forum, Samantha Gross, a director at IHS CERA, provided some principles that policy makers and thought leaders should apply when thinking about the water-energy nexus:

The first principle is that water and energy issues cannot be viewed in isolation. Considering the interplay between the two can help avoid unintended consequences of energy policies or water policies.

Second, and we’ve alluded to this earlier, all water issues are local. The value of water and the availability of water differ tremendously in different places around the world. And in this way, thinking about water challenges is very different than thinking about climate change challenges since CO2 emitted somewhere in the world is the same as CO2 emitted anywhere in the world. Water challenges are just the opposite.

So these principles lead us to the conclusion that there’s really no one-size-fits-all solution to water and energy issues or extending that, any water issue.

The world needs local solutions, to local challenges and multidisciplinary approaches.

Water touches every part of our economy and ecology and we lose sight of this fact at our peril.

Collaboration is the Key;

“Rather than wait for governments to act, we need to take a leadership role in offering ideas and solutions” to help solve the “stress nexus” of water, energy and food, said Peter Voser, former CEO of Royal Dutch Shell in a column for Project Syndicate. He notes that little has been done to address the needs of the stress nexus in any kind of comprehensive way. “We need to learn to adapt our resource systems and institutions to deal with the new pace of change and uncertainty.

Voser outlined a program Shell put together with a “small group of CEOs” who are trying to find practical ways to make local economies and resource systems more resilient. The initiative involves companies from different economic sectors, not just the energy industry.

“Although existing technology gives us powerful tools to conserve, clean and reuse water, solving water shortages around the world will require further innovation in addition to the implementation of new water policies, regulations and incentives,” the GE Citizenship group wrote in a previous Ideas Lab article.

GE has long made water issues an important part of its corporate agenda. The company works with governments, communities, nonprofit organizations and thought leaders around key water issues.

In its 2008 white paper titled, “Addressing Water Scarcity Through Recycling and Reuse: A Menu for Policymakers,” GE examined four major policy approaches to increase water recycling and reuse, including support for education and outreach, removing barriers, providing incentives and establishing mandates and regulation. And at the “From Used to Useful” water summit held in November 2009, GE convened water experts from the public and private sectors to establish a dialogue about how best to promote and facilitate water conservation and reuse.

GE is also helping to create a standardized approach to measuring and understanding the water risks affecting corporations and their investors. The company launched the Global Water Sustainability Center, as a joint venture with ConocoPhillips and also announced a partnership with the World Resources Institute and Goldman Sachs on a new initiative to develop a Water Index.

The International Finance Corporation is no stranger to the importance of the water-energy nexus, said Usha Rao-Monair, IFC’s Global Head of Water. During a panel discussion at the WEF she offered four observations:

1—Solutions to water security can only occur when there’s an explicit collaboration among stakeholders that is public, private and civil society. If they don’t all talk to each other, and they don’t stop all operating within silos, sustainable solutions will not come about.

2—It’s important to look at water holistically in all its uses. Why? Because otherwise what has happened so far there has be an overuse, a complete and dramatic overuse of water in almost every country of the world resulting in a dangerous decline in water sources.

3—There was a paucity of facts and numbers and baselines in the water sector. people were relying on numbers that were outdated, perhaps not reflecting reality today. So it became important to create these fact bases and using them, create a diagnostic which analyzed the fact bases simply so that everybody that looked at the issue and the solutions could understand it.

4— Water is a very local issue. The trouble with it being a local issue is that it was never particularly high on a political agenda of a country, ever. So what we said was that in order to bring light to water it should move up the agenda and become a number one issue.

When it comes to the water-energy nexus there just is no “business as usual” option. Water cannot be managed in the future as it has been in the past, writes Waughray. And then he concludes:

The good news is that a transformation in management of the world’s water is beginning. Unlike climate change, no one argues that the water security problem does not exist, or that solutions are not urgently required. New technologies, new arrangements and new policies will be needed. The water services sector, water processing, water-recycling technologies and water policy links to the energy and agricultural sectors are fast becoming a busy space for business, financial and professional services firms, policy-makers and issue specialists.

SOURCE: is editor-in-chief of Ideas Lab.