Water and Energy: The New Kobayashi Maru?
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Nexus Blog

Nexus Blog // Water and Energy: The New Kobayashi Maru?

Solving energy challenges cannot come at the cost of achieving water security goals

It is expected that the global demand for energy will increase 30% by 2030. In regions that are experiencing rapid economic growth, the increasing demand for energy will be translated as an increase in demand for water.

In regions such as Latin America, for example, which are dependent on hydropower, it has been estimated that demand for energy will increase by 56% by this date, thereby significantly increasing the pressure on existing water resources. However the conflictive nature of achieving both energy and water security seems to be exacerbated by the lack of institutional policy frameworks that successfully integrate both securities — something itself directly challenged by the fragmentation of the sustainability concept itself.

Breaking down sustainability

The concept of sustainable development at the international level has its origins in the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, but it was the report of the Brundtland Commission in 1983 which not only defined sustainable development as we know it today, but also developed the idea of environmental limits. It emphasized Earth as a vast but ultimately limited source of natural materials and energy sources, therefore development must be tied to the understanding that natural resources are finite. Subsequent international agreements have directly incorporated the term into documents such as the Rio Declaration which proposed the principles of sustainable development and its subsequent action plan, Agenda 21. Other documents such as the United Nations' Millennium Declaration have focused more on the socio-economic elements of sustainability.

Yet despite its emerging importance as an international concept, sustainability has often been fragmented into economic, environmental, social and cultural derivatives. To address these spheres independently goes against the concept of sustainability itself and the first law of ecology. The lack of a common framework is reflected in the disjointed understanding of the water and energy relationship. More often than not, water-basin committees are only consulted in energy decisions when these are related to hydropower. However, they are not consulted for decisions about the incorporation of alternative sources of energy and land planning, which have a direct impact on water resources.

There are many other examples of the tension between water use and energy production. Petroleum from Canadian oil sands deposits extracted via surface mining techniques can consume 20 times more water than conventional oil drilling. Regarding biofuels, irrigated first-generation soy and corn-based fuel can consume thousands of times more water than traditional fossil fuel extraction, thereby significantly reducing their sustainability credentials. In addition, installed solar thermal electricity, as opposed to photovoltaic electricity, consumes twice as much water as a coal power plant.

The situation will be further complicated at the basin level, especially for regions that suffer from both, water and energy scarcity. Both suppliers and users will inevitably increasingly compete for both resources. If a nation uses too much water, it can have devastating effects on the energy production of one of its neighbors, increasing tensions between them. This could result in serious conflict if the required cooperation agreements that define sustainable use of water are not in place.

Positive thinking and the water-energy nexus

It seems like there is an inverse relationship between water and energy security. Is this Kobayashi Maru real or imagined? The relationship between water and energy does not need to be negative if we change our understanding of sustainability toward one that integrates our use of natural land, water and energy sources and recognizes the interconnections between water and energy.

This more holistic understanding is present in regional documents such as the OAS's Declaration of Santa Cruz+10 and the Stockholm Statement. The Declaration recognizes that to be sustainable, every aspect of national policy, such as those on the energy matrix, water resource management, emergency planning and forest governance cannot be addressed independently of each other if we are to reach true sustainability.

The understanding of the water-energy relationship needs to consider social, political and environmental characteristics when promoting clean energy development. Every country has both a specific supply and demand for water and its energy portfolio must be developed according to the implications within other social and economic sectors of its society. For example, it must consider the impacts that the deployment of solar and wind power has in other sectors of the economy such as water demand and water pricing.

Why Rio+20 is important for the water-energy issue

Five of the nine "Major Groups" of the UN Division for Sustainable Development (DSD) have released statements supporting the incorporation of the water-energy-food security nexus within the Rio+20 discussions. The European Union has already established the nexus as one of the main challenges for the green economy. However, many of the key players within the negotiation process, including the United States, Brazil, India, and China, have not included the nexus approach in their official position papers.

To gather the support of these remaining actors, representatives of the Major Groups must advocate for the proposal at the national level. Civil society must aim to build domestic support for the inclusion of the water-energy nexus and a whole system approach before the third UNCSD Preparatory Committee Meeting, where the agenda for Rio+20 will be set. The inclusion of the nexus in the final agenda will only be possible if true engagement and dialogue between state and non-state actors is developed prior to the conference.

Although it is likely to only provide a policy framework rather than concrete actions on the ground, the incorporation of a joined up understanding of water and energy within the Rio+20 agenda can shift our understanding of sustainability. Given the importance of the first Earth Summit in shaping and promoting the concept of sustainable development, Rio+20 is a fantastic opportunity for global leaders to ensure that the nexus approach becomes a dominant component within the sustainability discourse. This outcome will be vital to both the promotion and delivery of comprehensive and sustainable natural resource policy frameworks at the local, national and regional levels.

Olimar Maisonet-Guzman is a 2011 Boren Fellow to Brazil and a member of the SustainUS Youth Delegation that will participate in the Rio+20 Earth Summit. Contact: {olimarmaisonet@gmail.com}

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