Addressing Water-Energy-Food Nexus

Although, India has made impressive progress in economic development and social transformation; it is continuing to struggle with challenges such as access to clean energy, food, water and ensuring an adequate standard of living for its vast population.  High population growth, rapid urbanization, fast economic progress, and industrialization, have increased demand for resources, including food, water, and energy, and intensified their use, with serious implications for the environment and long-term security of these sectors. South Asia remains home to more than 40% of the world’s poor (living on less than USD 1.25 a day) and India has managed to reduce the poverty level into 369 million (27.9 per cent of total population) in 2015-16[1]. The MDGs remain an unfinished agenda and its transition into Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) accelerate the ambition of government in ensuring water-energy-food securities without degrading the natural resource base. This ambition remains as a fundamental development challenge.


Freshwater, once abundant, is under over-exploitation due to increased demand for competing uses and anthropogenic negative impacts of climate change. About 14% of the Indian population (163 Million) lacks access to safe drinking water. Indian agriculture is dominated by small and marginal farmers, the ratio of agricultural land to agricultural population is about less than a hectare (0.3) per person, compared to more than 11 ha/person in developed countries. Over 90% of total water withdrawals are used for agriculture and about 60% of the population in India depend on groundwater for irrigation. Irrigation efficiency is low, water productivity is less than one-fifth of that in the world’s large food producing countries. There is a serious shortage of the energy required to make water available for crop production, for example through groundwater pumping. Per capita energy consumption in India is among the lowest in the world, which is about one-third of the global average (0.6 tonnes of oil equivalent (toe) as compared to the global per capita average of 1.8 toe). With growing populations, climate variability, declining agricultural land, increasing stress on water and energy resources, India faces the challenge of how to produce more food with the same or a reduced land area, less water, and increased energy prices, while conserving resources and maintaining environmental sustainability.

We need to focus on promoting sustainable use of energy with an integrated approach for water-Energy-Food (WEF) and do no harm to the environment. It is important to promote energy efficient irrigation pumps along with precession irrigation, which aims to replace the currently practiced business as usual irrigation facilities such as flood irrigation, powered with either diesel or electricity from gird. These efficiency measures along the entire agrifood chain can help save water and energy, such as precision irrigation based on information supplied by water providers, which can motivate farmers to invest in their systems to ensure the best returns from their water investment. It is expected this technological innovation around ‘energy efficient irrigation’ and water resources management strategy would create an enabling ecosystem in the country, which could trigger expansion of efficient irrigation to promote food grain production.

It is pertinent to underscore that the water-energy-food nexus is becoming an explicit focus issue among public-sector and private-sector businesses, which see an opportunity to help enable economic development and business growth in addressing nexus issues. At a global level, the United Nations’ 2015 Sustainable Development Goals include three that focus specifically on food, water, and energy. Organizations including the United Nations, World Bank, and the World Economic Forum have called for action to address the nexus stress. The voice of the private sector is also being heard through organizations such as WBCSD.

The private sector is emerging as a force in establishing and activating the water, energy, and food nexus ecosystems. Scaling these water, energy, and food nexus ecosystems can involve bringing in other stakeholders such as multinationals, NGOs, foundations, and regional or global banks to promote leading practices in water, agriculture, and energy management tied with the promotion of innovative technologies. This ‘increasing level of interests’ of various stakeholders are building up an impressive ‘startup and innovation’ culture for the Indian entrepreneurs and innovators, who could be benefited from the available knowledge, technologies and readily available financing. Cleantech is a rapidly growing market that shows great potential for Indian innovators. 84 innovators participated in a cleantech accelerator of UNIDO with their innovations covering energy efficiency, renewable energy, water and waste water and post-harvest management. A total of 26 already succeeded to create start-ups and collectively raised USD7 million for scaling up and commercialization.

There is also a need of ‘policy-push’ for strengthening the WEF nexus. Policies and instruments can be developed with an adequate consideration for the cross-sectoral consequences. The cross-sectoral efforts that have been made have remained linear, such as taking into account water for food or energy for food. This could create an imbalance between the sectors in terms of demand and supply. The connections between macro-economic and sectoral policies and cross-sectoral impacts should also be internalized into national policies. The common challenge facing India is how to decouple food production from water and energy use intensity and environmental degradation to make it sustainable. The planned Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are closely interlinked and success in achieving them will depend heavily on ensuring the sustainable use and management of water, energy, land (food), and other natural resources. These factors are not only interdependent, they also both reinforce and impose constraints on one another. It is within our power to combat scarcity by taking action at the nexus. Working together, and taking advantage of technological advances, the public sector, private sector, and NGOs can develop approaches that offer the hope of a sustainable and prosperous future.

[1] (source: 2019 global Multidimensional Poverty Index, UNDP and Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative)

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