Holistic approach the best bet for management of natural resources
Rivers that have never dried up in recorded history are drying up. We were already facing an unprecedented food and energy crisis even before the Russian-Ukraine crisis and Covid-19.
A major contribution to the crisis has been the sectoral approach to economic development since the industrial age.
While resources can be exploited separately, a lasting solution to the damage done to the environment can best be sought through multisector interventions.
Sustainable development is that which meets the needs of the current generation without affecting the capacity of future generations to meet their own.
The hallmark of sustainable development is a multisector approach to economic development. It, for example, entails recognising that food, energy and water security are interlinked.
Sustainable development is built on the realisation that industrialisation has gradually dismantled complex natural systems, the very systems that sustain life on earth.
While the global community has, since the 1960s, painfully accepted the impact of unbridled exploitation of natural resources, the sectoral approach continues to undermine sustainability.
Basically, to create a consumer society, modern economies can only operate by processing different parts of the environment. When things go wrong, like they are now in the environment, we try to fix the parts, hoping that the whole will be fixed.
That has not worked and has led to many disjointed processes and waste.
Not seeing natural resource sectors as forming the whole ecosystem has led to the current unpredictable weather patterns, drought, famine, diseases etc.
That is why looking at water, energy and food security as a ‘nexus’ (a series of connections) is critical in addressing the impacts of climate change on food, energy and water security.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the interlinkage between the three means a change in one will affect the others.
It is increasingly important to look at water, energy and food security as interconnected due to the following reasons:
The world population has hit the eight-billion mark and demands for basic services will rise the desire for higher living standards.
This will mean more movements from farms to cities, rising incomes, increased desire to spend those incomes on energy and water-intensive goods.
It means rapid urbanisation, changing diets and economic growth.
As incomes rise in many countries, we are seeing a significant global shift from predominantly starch-based diets to meats and dairy foods. These two are water-intensive.
The problem is that water is a finite resource, and while it is the most abundant resource, it is also overexploited. Water is primarily used in forestry and fishery and agricultural production. In addition, it is used to create and transfer energy in varying forms.
Agriculture is the largest consumer of the world’s freshwater resources, and more than one-quarter of the energy used globally is used for food production and supply.
As water becomes scarcer and stretched, its ability to support progress in several of the SDGs, particularly on poverty, hunger, sustainability and the environment is being reduced.
According to the UN, global water demand (in water withdrawals) is projected to increase by 55 per cent by 2050, mainly because of growing demands from manufacturing (400 per cent increase).
By 2035, water withdrawals for energy production could increase by 20 per cent and consumption by 85 per cent.
Production of biofuel
This will be driven via a shift towards higher efficiency power plants with more advanced cooling systems that reduce water withdrawals but increase consumption and increased production of biofuel.
The FAO says water harvesting and water conservation techniques could boost rain-fed kilocalorie production by up to 24 per cent and, if combined with irrigation expansion, by more than 40 per cent.
Yet, if we concentrate on water alone, we risk leveraging information from energy and food security: Food production and energy are highly water-intensive, after all. The following show why the Water Energy Food security Nexus approach is important.
According to the UN, 90 per cent of global power generation is water-intensive.
Power-plant cooling is responsible for 43 per cent of total freshwater withdrawals in Europe (more than 50 per cent in several countries), nearly 50 per cent in the USA, and more than 10 per cent of the national water cap in China.
On food, agriculture is the largest consumer of the world’s freshwater resources, and more than one-quarter of the energy used globally is used on food production and supply.
While almost 800 million people are currently hungry, by 2050 global food production would need to increase by 50 per cent to feed more than nine billion people.
Climate change is expected to have a significant impact on food security in Africa, with rising temperatures, changing rainfall patterns and drying rivers affecting crop yields.
Interconnecting water, energy and food means involving all actors: civil society, government, CBDs, international bodies, researchers and the people themselves.
Importantly, more than ever, the need for more conscious stewardship in the use of vital resources is required to achieve modern desires becomes more urgent and obvious.
Dr Mbataru teaches public policy at Kenyatta University, [email protected]