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What is the Water-Food-Energy Nexus? | Water Energy Food Nexus, Bonn 2011

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27 Feb 13

What is the Water-Food-Energy Nexus?

Andy Wales, Senior Vice President Sustainable Development for SABMiller, explains the water-food-energy Nexus and why is it so important.

The extent of the inter-connections between the water, food and energy means that issues such as water scarcity and food and energy security cannot be addressed in local silos. As global populations continue to grow, addressing the relationship between water, food and energy is only going to become more pertinent.

Those of you who have visited these pages before may have come across other blogs in which I talk about the water food energy nexus.

But what exactly is the nexus, and why is it so important?

Andy Wales

is Senior Vice President Sustainable Development for SABMiller plc, one of the world’s largest brewers. He leads the group’s approach to prioritising economic, social and environmental issues within the group’s strategies and business plans, including risks such as water scarcity and opportunities such as promoting local economic growth through smallholder farming. He also leads stakeholder engagement for the group.

SAB Miller Website

When we look at water, food and energy as resources, it is impossible to separate them - we need water to grow food, we need water for energy, we need energy to grow food, we need energy to treat and move water, and we need land and agricultural outputs for some of our energy provision.
The problem is that the resources are very rarely treated or managed in a way which appreciates their interconnections. Business decisions and policies are made in isolation - sometimes with unintended consequences. For example, in the pursuit of renewable energy, land might be dedicated to growing biofuels leaving the local population unable to grow the food they need to survive, and precious water sources depleted. Or, an agriculture ministry might determine to increase the amount of land under irrigation in order to grow food for its population, but do so at the expense of already-stretched water sources.

The nexus doesn’t always need to be negative and brewing beer is a useful demonstration. We rely on large quantities of high quality water in order to make beer. Therefore water quality and availability are issues that matter deeply to us. Our approach to water management starts with making our breweries as water efficient as we can - we’re aiming to use 3.5 litres of water to make 1 litre of beer by 2015, which will represent a 25% improvement on 2008. But by using less water, we reduce the amount of energy we use to pump, heat and treat it. And where we have developed more energy-efficient ways of boiling the wort (which eventually becomes beer), less water is lost through evaporation. In some breweries we’re using agricultural waste, such as rice husks and biomass from stalks, sawdust and groundnut shells. This is renewable energy, but it also brings additional income to local farmers, allowing them to profit from the by-products of food production.

Efficiency improvements are always the first step for companies, both within their own boundaries and then with their supply chain partners - and more and more companies are benefiting from managing their resources in a joined-up way. But that alone is not enough - the private sector and finance communities also need to encourage governments to address the need to set resource policy in an integrated way, in order to maximise the economic and social value; and to manage the inevitable trade-offs which will take place.

This is an issue that needs collaboration and collective actions, it’s an ongoing discussion and I’d be keen to hear your thoughts and ideas.

First published in the Huffington Post.

More information: How SAB Miller’s approaches the Nexus

Resource-efficiency is the first step towards effectively managing the water-food-energy nexus. Across its operations, SABMiller aims to become 25% more water-efficient by 2015 and 50% more carbon-efficient by 2020, over a 2008 base. Many of its businesses have made significant improvements. In Uganda, for example, Nile Breweries Ltd has reduced its water consumption from eight hectolitres of water per hectolitre of lager produced in 2006 to 4.7 hectolitres today.

By reducing the water used in brewing and packaging beer, the company also cuts the energy required for heating and cooling in the process. Similarly, by using biogas from wastewater or reclaiming local agricultural waste such as spent grains to generate renewable energy, they reduce reliance on fossil fuels. In India, for example, the burning of rice husks now provides cheaper fuel for breweries than conventional energy sources such as coal.

However the company recognises that resource-efficiency within its operations is not enough to safeguard the resources needed for its businesses. Accordingly, it also works across its supply chains and with the communities to explore sustainable solutions that work locally. A case in point is its work with smallholder and commercial farmers to help them improve their yields and quality, use less water and manage issues such as soil quality.

SAB Miller Website

Related Media Coverage

13 Dec 13

The Guardian

SABMiller’s head of sustainable development on the changing landscape of sustainability. The biggest victory over the last 20 years has been collaboration and partnerships between businesses and campaigning organisations. Big companies understand the agenda but the next step is to involve global small to medium-sized companies (SMEs), where the majority of economic activities and use of resources happen.

25 Oct 13

The Guardian

This is the first of a series of podcasts on the nexus; this first part focusses on water and food sustainability

Further Reading

26 Mar 14

“In the water sector, the food-energy-water nexus is slowly replacing the concept of Integrated Water Resources Management, “ says Jeremy Allouche, member of the IDS Water Justice Programme and the STEPS Centre.

23 Apr 12

What has brought nexus thinking to the fore, and what does this nexus look like? How does it relate to climate compatible development?

22 Nov 12

Felix Dodds, as Executive Director of Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future, took an active part in the preparation of the Bonn2011 Conference. Now, a year after the conference, he summarises the learnings and gives an outlook on the necessary next steps.

NEXUS in the Media

10 Jun 15


In this STEPS Center working paper, the authors argue that the governance of water, energy and food security has privileged control-orientated solutions

20 Mar 15


Often decisions are made without cross-sectoral coordination, targeting sector-specific optima and, thereby, resulting in risks and uncertainties across sectors and scales.

10 Nov 14

IChemE President’s Blog

The nexus challenge sits at the centre of IChemE’s technical collaboration with the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE).

15 Jan 15

Ecosystem Marketplace

As sectors search for ways to apply integrated solutions that address the needs of water, energy and food, they are too often leaving out a critical component - nature - says Ecosystem Marketplace’s most recent report on watershed investments.

09 Jul 13

The Guardian

In this video by the Guardian the Guardian’s Jo Confino speaks to Sir Gordon Conway from Imperial College London, Tim Fox from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and Andy Wales, senior vice president sustainable development, SABMiller about the connections between water and food.


  • IFPRI International Food Policy Research Institute
  • WEF World Economic Forum
  • WWF World Wide Fund for Nature

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