Water-Energy-Food Security Nexus In Asia’s Large River Basins

By Maija Taka, Marko Keskinen, Olli Varis 18 July, 2019

The water-energy-food security nexus is complicated but as Taka, Keskinen & Varis show, the tensions can be alleviated

Scarcity in one factor in the Water-Energy-Food security (WEF) nexus directly affects the other factors; the WEF nexus approach can alleviate the tensions triggered
Transboundary river basins are the hotspots of policy-making across the globe; check out 3 cases in Central Asia, South Asia & the Mekong Region, all facing significant water issues
Even though water resources can be accurately delineated to one basin, the network of energy & food production & supply chains is more complicated making the WEF approach key

Water-energy-food security (WEF) nexus is easily motivated, as water, energy, and food are the key to all life on Earth. The nexus approach highlights the importance of the security in these factors in the context of multifaceted environmental change and population growth.

Scarcity in one factor directly affects the other nexus factors…

…WEF nexus approach can alleviate tensions

Scarcity in one factor directly affects other factors as well, causing imbalance in the nexus setting. Water plays a key role on sustainable development and efforts to increase renewable energy. Both renewable energy production (namely hydro- and bioenergy) and food production are competing for the limited water resources. Besides, extraction of fossil fuels pollutes massive amounts of water globally. The triggered tensions can be examined and even alleviated by WEF nexus approach

3 WEF cases – South Asia, Central Asia and the Mekong region

Transboundary river basins are the hotspots of policy-making across the globe. Large Asian river basins create a transboundary/multinational setting with international interdependencies. The WEF analysis for these regions cannot be delineated to the basin, as they are open systems having connections to the surrounding areas across spatial scales.

The comparison of three such regions – South Asia, Central Asia and the Mekong region – indicates how the nexus can be applied to study the interrelationships, and how varying the water-energy-food systems are in different areas (Figure 1 – click to enlarge).

Central Asia

In Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan), the state of nexus strongly lies on the history. The system is characterized by arid area irrigation, winter heating, and hydropower. The Soviet era divided the area into downstream of cotton-intensive agriculture with fossil fuel production for heating, whereas the upstream stored water quantities were balancing between downstream agriculture and local hydropower energy.

The unsustainable water-use in Central Asia has led to high water stress

The unsustainable water-use in Central Asia has led to high water stress with environmental impacts, especially on the Aral Sea. The high competition of water and the historic infrastructure characterized by interdependencies are currently the key challenges of the local WEF nexus.

South Asia

In comparison, South Asia (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Nepal, and Pakistan) is densely populated region with several important transboundary rivers. Here water is a key element for both energy and food production. Agriculture is strongly supported by groundwater-fed irrigation, which requires a lot of energy. Needless to say, the rivers are under extreme pressure, and the upstream-downstream competition is intense.

Upstream-downstream pressure on rivers is intense in South Asia

The unsustainable food production weakens both energy and water security in the South Asia region, and the area is being forced to tackle the pressure with large hydropower plans and increased dependency on imported oil. The several transboundary water treaties provide useful platform for many transboundary collaborative arrangements, but they are still insufficient to tackle the policy-making and integration policies that occur also on national level.

Mekong Region

Third case, the Mekong Region (China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam) is characterized by rapid development and urbanization, together with vast hydropower plans particularly in the Mekong River Basin. The economic boom has increased the need for energy and thus contributed to the hydropower development.

Economic boom in the Mekong Region has increased the need for energy thus contributed to the vast hydropower development

Currently, a total of 57 large hydroelectric dams are located in the Mekong basin, and plans for more than hundred more are under development. The motivation for hydropower development is two folded: hydroelectric dams will produce more electricity with low emissions (especially in China), and for some countries this is an opportunity to export energy (especially in Laos).

In contrast to the Central and South Asia regions, Mekong’s transboundary rivers experience lower levels of water stress. The high water availability has been the key for the region to become one of the main global rice producers and inland fisheries. Water is among the key factors in both regional economy and local food security. The vast hydropower development will strengthen energy security while polarizing food security: the food production as a whole benefits largely, but local, subsistence farming and fisheries are set under pledge.

The potential of the WEF nexus approach

The three Asian cases point out the potential of WEF nexus in examining local security and the interlinkages of contributing factors. The securities are controlled by not only anthropogenic factors, such as population growth, economic development or urbanization, but by environmental factors, such as groundwater and climatic factors as well.

WEF nexus helps to consider several sectors simultaneously in the context security and sustainability. The inclusion of other factors affecting water resources, such as climate change or activities like tourism, will improve our understanding of the increasing water stress. Yet, broadening scope will introduce new dependencies and challenge the usability of the approach.

Identifying the current interrelationships and key actors is the first step towards sustainable management and multidisciplinary cooperation. Examining this helps to see how critical the nexus relationships actually are. The negative effects have higher potential to escalate into political issues.

Especially in the context of transboundary basins, nexus has a great potential to bring new resources and approaches to strengthen cooperation and to create genuine involvement to policy-making. Basins are open systems and thus systems such as WEF nexus require to examine the relationships across various spatial scales.

Water resources can be accurately delineated to one basin but the network of energy & food production & supply chains is more complicated…

…WEF approach deals with this

Even though water resources can be accurately delineated to one basin, the network of energy and food production and supply chains is more complicated. Finally, the policy-making and collaboration must happen across the scales. WEF nexus has a great potential to support water resources management, transboundary cooperation, and even sustainability.

To conclude, water-energy-food security nexus approach provides a systematic process for both analysis and policy-making that can be used in a variety of ways. It helps to focus on the linkages between water, energy, food and other linked sectors, and in this way to promote resource use efficiency, synergies and sustainability.


Further Reading

  • Organic Agriculture Can Fight Climate Change – Organic agriculture is so much more than no pesticides as CEO of Go Organics, Spencer Leung, shows with lower GHG emissions, reduce energy & mitigating climate risks to farmers
  • 5 Reasons Plant-Based Will Be Unleashed In Asia – Are you ready for Asia’s plant-based revolution? David Yeung, Founder & CEO of Green Monday, shares 5 reasons its coming soon including that it is only a matter of time before the current global food system collapses
  • Role Of Businesses In Water Conservation – With the backdrop of Singapore’s industrial water challenges, Professor Asit Biswas & Dr Cecilia Tortajada show what Unilever & Nestle are doing on water management but also the behavioural challenges they face
  • Can Loop’s 21st Century Milkman Fix Plastic Plague – Called the 21st Century milkman, is Loop’s circular shipping platform the answer to our planets massive plastic problem? Corporate Knight’s Adria Vasil explores
  • Recycled Organics: Protecting Water In Sydney’s Food Bowl – CORE is protecting Sydney’s foodbowl with its Sustainable Amendments for Agriculture (SAFA) Program based on using recycled organics, which benefit the land & farmers. CORE’s Chief Executive, Christopher Rochfort, expands
  • Water Wars: What Policymakers Can Do – Water conflicts within countries are increasingly prevalent with industrial and even transboundary implications. What can policymakers do? We sat down with World Bank’s Scott Moore to find out
  • Sharing Rivers: The Lancang-Mekong Case – Using the emergency water release by China to help downstream countries in the Lancang-Mekong River Basin as an example, Tsinghua University’s Prof. Zhao Jianshi explores the benefits of cooperation & the importance of China
  • Upper Yangtze: Integrated Water Management & Climate Adaptation – Experts from China & Switzerland introduce their joint project to enhance water management & climate adaptation in the Jinsha River Basin. What lessons have been learned & what is next?
  • Sharing Rivers: China & Kazakhstan – China and Kazakhstan share 24 rivers. Dr. Selina Ho from the National University of Singapore reviews their history of transboundary river co-operation and why this relationship is more advanced than China’s river relations with India & the Mekong states

Maija Taka
Author: Maija Taka
Maija words at the Water and Development Research Group (WDRG) as a postdoc researcher and a project manager. Her research concentrates on water resources and quality, urbanization and spatial analysis. Additionally, she is innovating new culture for doctoral students' instruction.
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Marko Keskinen
Author: Marko Keskinen
Marko act as a Consortium Leader for multi- and interdisciplinary , funded by the Strategic Research Council of Finland. Winland is a unique project that looks at energy, food and water security as part of Finland's comprehensive security with the help of interdisciplinary research, scenarios and co-creation. He also takes part in the Tekes-funded, cross-Aalto project. I have worked for long in Southeasia Asia, particularly on Mekong River and its transoundary water management and strategy processes. He collaborates closely with different ministries and other stakeholders, and have worked e.g. for the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Mekong River Commission, Asian Development Bank and World Bank.I'm currently instructing one post-doctoral researcher and four doctoral researchers. I am also proud member of our , and participate in its award-winning . I've also been planning and now implementing that introduces new doctoral students to the wonderful world of science, research and scientific writing.
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Olli Varis
Author: Olli Varis
Olli is a professor of Water Resources Management with a focus on water, environment and development research and consultation. His research concentrates on sustainable development and water resources management in developing and emerging economies, particularly in Asia. He is interested in water resources and their interrelations to sectors such as agriculture and energy, and in relation to drivers such as climate change, urbanization, poverty, environment and economic development. He has been active in several international organizations including UNESCO, WMO, IWRA (Vice President 2007-2009), IWA, IIASA and UNU/WIDER. I was the Vice Dean of Reseach and Innovation of Aalto School of Engineering in 2013-2018, Counsellor at the Supreme Administrational Court of Finland in 2006-2015, and is a Distinguished Adjunct Professor at Asian Institute of Technology, Thailand
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