Talking about water and energy linkages

Friday, 21 March 2014 08:15 GMT

A woman waters her crops using electric motor irrigation pump for small-scale farming in Kenya. Photo credit: DIV at USAID on Flickr

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Greater efficiency in water and energy systems can lead to great cost savings while ensuring greater water and energy security

Today we celebrate World Water Day and yet the number of people without access to safe water, adequate sanitation and a modern form of energy is staggering. Collectively, these people without access to these basic services – comprising more than two-thirds of the world’s poor – constitute the “bottom billion” living in impoverished slums and remote rural areas.  As the world discusses the international development agenda beyond 2015, it is now established that access to these basic services is essential to pulling populations out of the poverty trap and ensuring their health and wellbeing.

The United Nations system has collectively focused attention on this nexus between water and energy, which becomes the theme for this year’s World Water Day (celebrated on 22 March every year) and a number of other prominent international events. This focus could not be more timely and topical – water and energy are closely interlinked, interdependent and under increasing stresses. The world’s leaders will meet in Tokyo this year to discuss the water-energy nexus and offer technological and policy solutions; the United Nations University (UNU) and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) will host the celebrations on behalf of the UN system.

Generation of nearly all forms of energy and extraction of fuels like coal, oil, gas and uranium requires the extensive use of water. The more recent and heightened attention to biofuel production as an alternative to traditional petro-fuels is also a very water-intensive process, which also adversely impacts food security, soil quality and water quality in downstream water bodies. The water-energy nexus is the most direct in the case of hydropower and geothermal energy generation, for which water and energy must be managed in an integrated manner.

Conversely, pumping, treating and supplying water consumes considerable amounts of energy. Global estimates put energy consumption for these purposes at about eight percent of the global energy production. Often, access to safe water and adequate sanitation cannot be assured when the communities or populations are off the national energy grid.

The demand for energy and water is growing rapidly due to the increasing population and enhanced living standards that on average require higher consumption of both. By the year 2030, we will require 40 percent more water and 50 percent more energy – if we are not able to modify our present consumption patterns.  Much of this additional demand emanates from developing countries, in which economies and consumption demands are growing faster than the rest of the world. Ironically, many of these same countries are not fully prepared to respond to this increasing demand, often lacking the human, technological and service-provisioning capacity.

It therefore stands to reason that we plan for and utilize water and energy in a consolidated and integrated manner. In general, that has not happened in most countries. Planning for water resources lies typically within the domain of environment and agriculture ministries, whereas planning for energy resources typically lies within the domain of industry or infrastructure ministries. In a way, one could argue that governments often treat these as two separate planets moving in their separate orbits.

Bringing together the planning processes and bridging the policy gaps remains more challenging than it might appear on the surface. In order to make it happen, we need to develop and present a ‘business case’ for why managing these two resources and associated sectors together makes good policy sense. The simplest argument is that greater efficiency in water and energy systems can lead to great cost savings while ensuring greater water and energy security.

A more comprehensive argument can also be made in terms of poverty reduction and improved economic activity. Interlinked provisioning of water and energy to populations can enable them to engage in more productive economic activity, which can lift them out of poverty. As has been observed over the last century, hydropower generation has also allowed for better management of water for enhanced agriculture productivity and other economic activities, thus boosting national economies.

The dialogues to be conducted this week at World Water Day celebrations at the UNU facilities in Tokyo are meant to inform the policy formulation processes at the international level as well as the discourse on the post-2015 development agenda. These conversations are also intended to identify gaps in capacity for addressing the water-energy nexus. 

We anticipate that the policy recommendations emanating from Tokyo will provide a push in the right direction – the world is listening.