Addressing the Water-Energy-Food Nexus in the Asia Pacific


The food crisis of 2007-2008 highlighted the coupling of food and energy markets due to demand for biofuels, animal feed, prices of fertilizers and transportation and the impact of droughts and floods on food supply and demand. The concentration of systemic risks on the linkages between water, energy and food, i.e. the Water-Food-Energy Nexus, exacerbated by climate change, emerged as a key global concern during the Rio+20 process. Key issues identified were: competition for water between sectors but especially energy (biofuels, hydropower, thermal plant cooling), food and feed with increased water demand threatening water security and ecosystems; risk to food and energy security due to increased variability of water resources; competition for land for biofuel and tree crops displacing food production and livelihoods; water and land footprint of climate change mitigation policies; growing pressure on land, water and energy of rapidly growing livestock production; and increasing energy intensity of food production and the value chain. Discussion on the Nexus and trade-offs and synergies between water, food (and feed) and energy security or sectors have increasingly displaced the discourse on Integrated Water Resources Management, which has not really bettered multi-sectoral coordination.

In the Region, Nexus issues have in fact long dominated water and food security issues. The pumping and groundwater revolution has transformed irrigated economies and now underpins the food security of major countries such as China, India, Pakistan or Bangladesh. This has accelerated the depletion of water resources and aquifers. Food production is increasingly vulnerable to energy prices. Dependency of farming on energy subsidies has compromised the energy sector. Public irrigation agencies delivering poor services to famers force them to pump, and irrigation system management increasingly proritizes energy production. Water development for hydropower and irrigation has often been synergetic, but at the expense of downstream livelihoods and ecosystems. Hydropower is advertised as a green energy. Many countries are gearing up for enormous investments. The potential impact on fisheries and downstream food systems has escalated nexus-related conflicts in the lower Mekong and in countries. Land concessions for biofuel crops (oil palm) threaten ecosystems. The impact of forestation on downstream water use is also problematic. Animal agriculture has consolidated into larger high water and energy footprint units.

As economies develop, energy security underpinning industry and services becomes the key platform for national food security and the food security of increasing numbers of urbans and rurals, while rural development and rich aquifer areas are constrained by lack of access to energy. Managing these conflicts, agreeing on trade-offs, identifying and implementing programmes that enhance synergies are hampered by poor sectoral coordination, institutional fragmentation, inadequate capacity, vested interests and political sensitivities related to subsidy policies, and a too generic approach delaying action on solutions.

The present attention on the Nexus at global, regional levels and in key countries provides opportunities and risks. The discourse on food security may be captured by elites closer to the economic and energy sectors with trade-offs resolved in favour of the energy and water sectors. The attrition of capacity of rural and agricultural sectors in countries where their importance declines may result in weak representation of food security interests, poor mapping of trade-offs and synergies and marginalization of food security interests, and forsaken opportunities. Because of the dependence and impact of key food systems on the energy sector and possible impact of energy development, and of the strong linkages between water and land management and energy, a multi-sectoral approach to sustainability of agriculture and natural resources management must consider the energy sector at the regional and global levels, and in countries and locations where Nexus considerations are paramount.



At the global level, the following policy processes are particularly relevant: the Federal Government of Germany took the initiative at the international level to highlight the Nexus with the Bonn Nexus Conference of 2011 – Initiating integrated solutions for the green economy – for which FAO was a partner, which was followed up by a Nexus Policy Forum in 2013; Post Rio+20 Food Security, water and energy Agendas; Global Economic Forum Climate Change and Bioenergy; 7th World Water Forum; 2nd World Irrigation Forum; Zero food waste and losses; Global Food Security Dialogues (G20, G8, UN). In addition, other policy processes related specifically to forestry such as COP, FLEGT-VPAs and UNFF is also of relevance for the Nexus to consider as this process has shown incremental linkages to food security, bioenergy and water.

At the regional level, the following are relevant: Policy process related to climate change adaptation and mitigation; ESCAP-driven conferences and policy process on development and environment; 7th World Water Forum; Asia Pacific Water Summits; ASEAN Working Group on Water Resources Management; Mekong River Commission; Mekong Forums on the Water Food Energy Nexus; Asia Water Weeks; Regional Economic Fora (APEC); ASEAN and SARC food security dialogues; the Regional Fishery and Forestry Commissions; the ASEAN Multi-sectoral Framework on Climate Change: Agriculture and Forestry Towards food security (AFCC); and the APEC’s aspirational goal of increasing forest cover in the region by at least 20 million hectares by 2020. A number of Water Food Energy Nexus dialogue platforms are emerging at global, regional and national levels . At the moment, water policy and water resources management, the Global Agenda of Action for Sustainable Livestock as well as the ESCAP framework and climate change dialogues or programmes (NAPAs), offer good opportunities for countries with on-going or planned national food security or poverty eradication dialogues



The Water-Food-Energy Nexus is directly relevant to a number of key food and natural resources management systems, and water policy, food policy, feed policy, forest policy and energy policies have very strong interactions. Issues of access to energy and water for eradication of food insecurity and malnutrition and poverty reduction, but also for vulnerability and resilience are strongly linked to the Nexus, while climate change adaptation or mitigation has obvious Nexus-related impacts. The consideration of a nexus approach therefore suggests that large number of outcomes would require the consideration of the nexus, and that a large number of products and services would easily or should explicitly consider energy issues, if they do not already. The Nexus Pillar is strongly cross-sectoral and inter-disciplinary which requires addressing explicitly the key cross-sectoral linkages and their trade-offs and synergies.

Rapid agricultural and rural transformations are happening in the Region, which affect relationships between the water-energy-food sectors, affect the demand for these resources, and in turn are affected by changing sectoral contexts. Tracking and understanding these transformations and evolution are important for sustainable water management and food security in our changing world.

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Land and Water Division, Natural Resources and Environment, Food and Agriculture Organization Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, Bangkok Thailand 10200

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