Water-energy, the unbreakable nexus

June 25, 2014

The nexus between water and energy is an unbreakable bond, and both the manufacturing and the industrial sector are particularly aware of this.


Almost all human activities depend on the availability of these resources, and the economic system we know today and which is gradually spreading to the developing world, is based on their interdependence. We need water in the process of extracting oil or raw materials, for a power plant cooling or to grow the crops that will become biofuels. We need large amounts of energy to pump, treat and distribute water in the industrial as well as in the residential and agricultural sectors.

Yet, especially in terms of international policies, there isn’t any truly integrated approach in the management of these resources and the risks associated with their scarcity. We still miss the strategies and probably the institutional skills that would help reflect the water-energy nexus in the decision-making processes that involve one or more countries. As Marianne Beisheim of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs[1] explains, today it is hard to find bilateral agreements for cross-border waterways including not only regulatory issues about their use, but also cooperation around the integrated management of water and energy in manufacturing. For many countries, energy production and supply are considered more as a priority than the preservation of water resources and soil – e.g quantity of water and land needed in the mining or biofuel sectors.

According to the World Bank[2], in 2035 the world’s energy consumption will grow by 35%, with an increase of water consumption by 85%, in the energy sector only. This phenomenon is unstoppable and strictly related with the access of emerging countries into the global economic game. All this will put additional pressure on already stressed water resources and it will make access to drinking water more and more expensive, not only for the energy and water sectors, but especially for the agricultural sector. And, in fact, the water-energy nexus cannot ignore the food security issue and all its implications.

From May 19 to 22, 2014, about 250 representatives of various nations from across the planet gathered in Bonn for the international conference “Sustainability in the water-energy-food nexus,” an event that takes place every year. It was launched in 2011, with a view to bringing the link between water, energy and food, to the top of global decision makers’ agendas and to support the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) promoted during the Rio +20 conference. As the title suggests, the Bonn conference includes food in the water-energy nexus as a key element of the resource consumption issue. The conference produced a “call to action” addressed to policy makers, researchers, industry and calls for the adoption of integrated approaches in government and industrial policies.

In order to promote the adoption of the “nexus approach”, the Bonn conference issued several recommendations, including:

  • New economic incentives, such as price-based reforms to better reflect water and energy scarcity and to foster efficient production processes;
  • Investments in research and technological innovation in both public and private sectors to find effective and economically feasible systems to apply the “nexus approach” – for example in the field of agricultural production, water distribution and sanitation, aquatic ecosystems protection, etc.;
  • Use of more efficient technologies taking into account a series of interconnected resources at the same time;
  • Deeper involvement of the global scientific community and other stakeholders in the processes of information observation and collection in support of decision making – for example in risk assessments, socio-environmental impact assessments and Earth Observations.

In line with the Bonn conference recommendations, are the conclusions reached by NAEM (National Association of Environmental Management) in the US, where on the same day they published their “Energy-water nexus," mainly addressed to the industrial sector. The report highlights how the lack of an integrated approach to water and energy management seriously endangers business continuity, with huge implications in terms of costs and profits.

The NAEM report emphasizes the importance of energy and water saving, of water conservation and reuse, of raising awareness among supply and production line managers, and, finally, the importance of investing in research, development and innovation.

Since 2010, the Dow Jones Sustainability Index has included water availability among the elements to be considered in assessing how sound is a business and how well it manages the risks associated with resource supply, management of social conflicts, regulation changes. Nevertheless, there are still very few companies – and governments – who apply a truly systemic approach to the water-energy nexus, as if the two resources were in competition with each other, as if they were to “choose” one or the other, without understanding how essential is to manage them altogether.

This article was originally published in Italian on Now Howa sustainability web magazine powered by Stantec in Italy.  

[2] “Thirsty energy”, The World Bank, Washington DC, 2013

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