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Meeting Growing Demand for Water, Energy, and Food with the “Nexus” Approach

Posted: April 23, 2015 at 5:17 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

Photo Credit: Deeba Yavrom

Note: The following piece is part of the SAIS Review‘s first web series on the topic of Sustainable Development and the Millennium Development Goals. For more information, please refer to the Sustainable Development web series page.

By Diane French

GOAL: Meet growing demand for water, energy, and food through an integrated “nexus” approach to achieve water, energy, and food security worldwide while supporting the sustainable development of each individual resource.

TARGET: Reduce inefficiencies in water management and use, energy generation and distribution, and food production and consumption by x percent in developed countries and y percent in developing countries by 2030.


In light of growing demands on natural resources—particularly water, energy, and food—and the inherent interconnectedness between each, sustainable development in the agricultural, freshwater, and energy sectors would benefit from a unified water-energy-food “nexus” goal in the upcoming Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A nexus goal of meeting growing demand for water, energy, and food through integrated and sustainable solutions would improve upon the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by prioritizing a unified strategy to meet water, energy, and food security at the individual and international levels, both in developed and developing regions. The key to meeting predicted demand in a sustainable manner lies in reducing inefficiencies across each sector, across the entire supply chain, and across the globe. A target to reduce inefficiencies in water management and use, energy generation and distribution, and food production and consumption by x percent in developed countries and y percent in developing countries by 2030, would allow for universal engagement in the nexus approach with specialized strategies and objectives for individual sectors and countries.


By the year 2050, global population is expected to reach nine billion people. According to estimates from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), feeding this additional population will require a 70 percent increase in total food production. As the global population grows, and as development advancements enable more and more people to break out of poverty, the World Energy Council estimates that energy supplies will need to double by 2050 in order to meet rising energy demand.[1] Concurrently, with ongoing droughts and increased need for freshwater, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) predicts the global demand for water to increase by 55 percent by 2050.[2]

The proposed Sustainable Development Goals of the Open Working Group (OWG) of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly recognizes the increasing demands for food, energy, and water on global development beyond 2015. Indeed, the proposed list of seventeen SDGs includes one for each resource—food, energy, and water. Goal 2 seeks to “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.” Goal 6 aims to “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.” And Goal 7 intends to “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.”[3]

Yet by dividing each of the food, water, and energy considerations of the coming years into separate goals, the SDGs overlook the inherent interconnectedness between the three resources. Agriculture and power generation account for the majority of water withdrawal in most developed countries, such as the United States, where these two uses make up over 80 percent of total water demand—about 34 percent for agriculture and 48 percent for power generation. In both developed and developing countries, agriculture generally accounts for 70 percent or more of water consumption.[4] This interconnectivity between the three resources that form the building blocks of life, robust economies, and stable political systems has often been referred to as the “water-energy-food nexus.”


Currently, by separating the three resources into separate goals, the SDGs “silo” each, leading to international agreements, policy recommendations, and development choices that prioritize one at the expense of another. By establishing a unified, integrated approach in the SDGs, the OWG could both cut back on the excessive number of goals in the current proposal and create a single “water-energy-food” goal with appropriate targets that support a cross-sectoral framework. This would also avoid a main shortcoming of the MDGs: identifying sectorally-divided goals (and targets) with little consideration for how efforts to succeed in one sector would affect (or be affected by) efforts in another sector.

Having a combined “nexus” SDG would appease critics of the current OWG proposal who would rather see a more simplified set of goals than the current, unwieldy seventeen-item list and would meet the call of the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda for a “limited number of goals and targets.”[5] A “nexus” SDG would also appeal to those looking for a more integrated platform for addressing the complex issues of the environment. Consequently, by promoting an integrated approach, a “nexus” SDG would raise awareness across multiple sectors, accumulate attention from a broader audience, coordinate cohesive action among varied stakeholders, and expand the spread of potential funding and other resources to drive action across the globe. While opponents of the nexus approach have criticized it for further complicating the challenging goal-setting process, ignoring the inherent linkages between water, energy, and food goals would allow for redundancies and contradictions that could ultimately create more complications than using the nexus approach to confront the linkages head-on.[6]

Catalyzing global sustainable development through a joint “water-energy-food” nexus goal would be easy to promote and realistic to achieve due to the overlapping and egregious existing inefficiencies in each sector. Even in a highly industrialized country like the United States, 2.1 trillion gallons of freshwater (14 to 18 percent of the water the nation treats) is lost each year simply due to aging and leaky pipes, broken water mains, and faulty meters, according to American Water Works.[7] Water usage and waste in the agricultural sector dwarfs that of the industrial and municipal sectors. Leaky irrigation systems, wasteful field application methods, cultivation of non-native ill-suited crops, and other inefficient agricultural systems waste an additional 400 trillion gallons each year—60 percent of the total water used by the sector.[8] Roughly one-third of food produced for human consumption in the agriculture sector is lost or wasted globally.[9] And, according to the World Resources Institute, this 1.3 billion tons of food waste is responsible for another 45 trillion gallons of wasted water (24 percent of all water used for agriculture).[10] In turn, food that is processed but not eaten is responsible for adding 3.3 billion tons of greenhouse gases to the planet’s atmosphere each year.[11] These wasteful emissions join those created by fossil fuels and their inefficient production, distribution, and use; power plants, for example, typically only convert about 30 percent of their energy input into usable electricity.[12] Yet even inefficient energy systems require an immense amount of water in all phases of energy production and electricity generation for cooling, storage, enhanced oil recovery, hydraulic fracturing, and other purposes. And water systems, whether in initial treatment, pumping, delivery, and wastewater treatment, in turn require further use of energy.[13] The inefficiencies and linkages in each of the water, energy, and food sectors worldwide are readily apparent.


The inherent interconnectedness of the water, energy, and food sectors means that while their impacts are linked, so are their opportunities for increased efficiency. Water–energy inefficiencies can be reduced by optimizing the efficiency of freshwater use in energy production, electricity generation, and end use; optimizing the energy efficiency of water management, treatment, distribution, and end use; enhancing the reliability and resilience of energy and water systems; increasing the safe and productive use of nontraditional water sources, such as surface and underground mine pool water, coal-bed methane produced waters, and industrial and/or municipal wastewater, for cooling and other power plant needs; promoting responsible energy operations with respect to water quality, ecosystem, and seismic impacts; and exploiting productive synergies among water and energy systems, such as using an energy system’s waste heat for water distribution and treatment or extracting energy from municipal waste water.[14] Water–food efficiencies can be gained through practices to yield “more crop per drop,” such as no-till agriculture, which reduces labor, irrigation, energy, erosion, and carbon emissions, or drip irrigation, which uses 40 percent less water than conventional sprinkler approaches and, coincidentally, would require 15 percent less energy for irrigation.[15] Food–energy improvements could be found by converting agricultural waste products into power, promoting a shift in dietary habits to replace some energy-intensive meats with less energy-intensive fruits, nuts, vegetables, beans and grains, or even using carbon dioxide from smokestacks to grow algae for food, feed, and fuel.[16]

Joint goals and targets were not a feature of the MDGs and, perhaps as a result, successes were not as widespread or conclusive as was hoped at the start of the millennium. Despite the success of the MDGs in improving food security, the latest estimates from the FAO indicate that around 805 million people are still chronically undernourished.[17] While food security may be on the rise, water scarcity, which already affects 40 percent of people worldwide, is expected to expand, with up to two-thirds of the world’s population at risk for living under water-stressed conditions by 2025, according to UN Water.[18] As for energy security, another criteria for human well-being and national economic development, the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that 1.3 billion people lack access to electricity.[19]

As most of those affected by food, water, and energy insecurity are living in the developing world, developing countries will be the ultimate beneficiaries of a nexus SDG. Yet developed countries, too, will reap the benefits of reduced inefficiencies in the agricultural, freshwater, and energy sectors, such as cleaner air, a greener environment, and more accurate pricing schemes for environmentally friendly goods and services. Developed, developing, and transitioning countries will all play important roles in a nexus solution. Low-income countries will be forced to simultaneously increase access to water, food, and energy in the face of rapid population growth and weak institutions. Emerging powers, such as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) will be challenged to advance on more resource efficient development trajectories. In industrialized countries, high per capita resource demands and large external resource footprints will have to be balanced with reduced consumption and waste along with an obligation to contribute to information and best practices sharing, technology transfers, and global financing.[20]

While the public sector will be responsible for setting the regulatory and incentive framework, allocating public funds, streamlining policy across institutions and sectors, removing misdirected subsidies, and strengthening weak environmental legislation, the private sector and civil society also have complementary roles and responsibilities. As the implementation bodies for on-the-ground changes in line with approved goals, private sector companies are responsible for standards setting and, with economic incentives from the public sector, should drive innovation for more efficient resource use and sustainable supply through smart sourcing of supply chain inputs, with preference given to renewable resources, such as wind and solar power. Lastly, as the crisis of water, energy, and food security has suffered from low public and political awareness in the past, civil society has a role to play in information dissemination, while NGOs, intergovernmental development organizations, and think tanks will be critical players in conducting research, gathering evidence, and producing the reports used to inform public opinion and inspire evidence-based political action. Such collective actions, in turn, will depend on UN agencies and other international players to maintain accountability and verify compliance with predetermined benchmarks.


The inherent interconnectedness of water, energy, and food security requires similarly unified strategies to bridge institutional and sectoral silos and to promote long-term systemic resilience rather than short-term sectorally optimized strategies that risk incurring negative externalities in other sectors. While the universality of the “nexus” approach guarantees its global applicability, the complexities of food, water, and energy security require context-specific solutions involving actors across all sectors and regions. Though some critics may contend that a nexus goal would be overly complex and distract from targeted efforts towards each individual sector, the reality is that limited water, energy, and food resources worldwide will require a holistic approach to development in the future.[21] It is true that water-energy-food interactions are complex, but by proactively addressing such complexities, it will be possible to reduce the risk of redundancies and contradictions that may occur in separate goals. Doing so will produce a more concise and robust framework for communicating and implementing sustainable development practices throughout the globe. A qualitative goal of establishing a water-energy-food “nexus” for the post-2015 agenda coupled with a quantitative target of reducing inefficiencies in each sector across developed and developing countries by 2030 would promote all three pillars of sustainable development—social, economic, and environmental—in a manner that is compelling, easy to understand, widely acceptable, and highly impactful.

Diane French is a second-year MA candidate at the Johns Hopkins Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.


[1] Charles Iceland, “Aqueduct and the Water-Food-Energy Nexus,” World Resources Institute, last modified November 17, 2011,

[2] Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Environmental Outlook to 2050: The Consequences of Inaction (Key Findings on Water) (OECD, 2012), 1,

[3] Open Working Group of the General Assembly on Sustainable Development Goals, Open Working Group Proposal for Sustainable Development Goals (New York, NY: United Nations, 2014), 10,

[4] Iceland, “Aqueduct and the Water-Food-Energy,” World Resources Institute.

[5] Molly Elgin-Cossart, A Global Journey to 2030 – Reviewing the First Steps(New York, NY: NYU Center on International Cooperation, 2013),;

United Nations, A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economics through Sustainable Development, the Report of the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda (New York, NY: United Nations, 2013),

[6] Nina Weitz, “Q & A: Mapping Complexity for Clearer Goals – A Nexus Approach to the SDGs,” interview by Anna Löfdahl, Ekaterina Bessonova, and Caspar Trimmer, Stockholm Environment Institute, last modified September 4, 2014,

[7] David Schaper, “As Infrastructure Crumbles, Trillions of Gallons of Water Lost,” National Public Radio (NPR), last modified October 29, 2014,

[8] World Wildlife Fund (WWF), “Farming: Wasteful Water Use,” WWF,

[9] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Global Food Losses and Food Waste (Düsseldorf, Germany: FAO, 2011),

[10] Eliza Barclay, “When You Waste Food, You’re Wasting Tons of Water, Too,” National Public Radio (NPR), last modified June 6, 2013,; Iceland, “Aqueduct and the Water-Food-Energy,” World Resources Institute.

[11] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Food Waste Harms Climate, Water, Land and Biodiversity – New FAO Report,” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations,

[12] World Wildlife Fund (WWF), “Wasting Energy,” WWF,

[13] U.S. Department of Energy, The Water-Energy Nexus: Challenges and Opportunities (Washington, DC: DoE, 2014),

[14] U.S. Department of Energy, The Water-Energy Nexus: Challenges.

[15] Michael E. Webber, “How to Make the Food System More Energy Efficient,”Scientific American, January 2012,

[16] Webber, “How to Make the Food System More Efficient.”

[17] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, International Fund for Agricultural Development, and World Food Program, The State of Food Insecurity in the World (Rome, Italy: FAO, 2014),

[18] UN Water, “Water Scarcity Already Affects More than 40 Percent of the People on the Planet,” UN Water,

[19] International Energy Agency (IEA), World Energy Outlook: Energy for All: Financing Access for the Poor (Oslo, Norway: IEA, 2011), 3,

[20] Holger Hoff, “Managing the Water-Land-Energy Nexus for Sustainable Development,” UN Chronicle, June 2012,

[21] Nina Weitz et al., Cross-Sectoral Integration in the Sustainable Development Goals: A Nexus Approach (Stockholm, Sweden: Stockholm Environmental Institute, 2014),

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