Impacts of changing trends in resource consumption

The water–food–energy “nexus” and its complex interactions

The water-food-energy (WFE) “nexus” refers to the complex interrelationships that exist between water, food and energy resources, which is essential for understanding how natural resources can be sustainably managed.

As the world’s population continues to increase and economic development continues at an unprecedented rate in many parts of the developing world, the demand for food, water and energy will also increase, especially in the emerging economies (China and India). There is therefore the need to find sustainable ways of managing food, water and energy such that future generations would benefit from these resources.

The diagram below summarizes the interrelationships

The interactions and connections between water, food and energy

Water security is defined in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as “access to safe drinking water and sanitation”, both of which have recently become a human right.

Water insecurity, resulting from the production of food and energy, is one way of understanding the complex interrelationship of the water-food-energy nexus. It takes water to produce food and energy. For example:

  •  Agriculture accounts for 70% of global water withdrawal. (FAO).
  • Water is used of extraction, mining, refining, processing and disposal of waste food and energy resources (eg shale gas).
  • In the energy sector, water is used in the production of hydroelectric energy. For example, 90% of global power generation is water-intensive. (UNESCO, 2014).
  • Besides, roughly 75% of all industrial water withdrawals are used for energy production. (UNESCO, 2014).
  • Water is also used to grow crops, such as maize, that can be converted to bio-fuels. More than 40% of the global population is projected to be living in areas of severe water stress by 2050. (UNESCO, 2014).
  • Power plant cooling is responsible for 43% of total freshwater withdrawals in Europe (more than 50% in several countries), nearly 50% in the United States of America, and more than 10% of the national water cap in China. (UNESCO, 2014).

There is, therefore, the need to balance our demand for water in order to sustainably produce food and energy.

Infographic: What is water security?

Energy security has been defined as “access to clean, reliable and affordable energy services for cooking and heating, lighting, communications and productive uses” (United Nations), and as “uninterrupted physical availability [of energy] at a price which is affordable, while respecting environment concerns”.

Energy insecurity can result from the fact that energy is needed for water and food production.

  • About 30% of total global energy consumption goes to the production and transportation of food to the final consumer (FAO). By 2035, water withdrawals for energy production could increase by 20% and consumption by 85%, 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. (UNESCO, 2014).
  • The extraction of energy resources, such as coal and oil or shale gas, pollutes water bodies which goes a long way to negatively affect food production.
  • Energy is also needed in the extraction, treatment and transportation of water for domestic and industrial use.
  • It is also useful in the food sector for providing energy for irrigation.

These demands may vary at the local, national or global level. However, there is no doubt that energy security is threatened due to the complexity of the water-food-energy nexus.

Food security is defined by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) as “availability and access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet the dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”.

Food insecurity can result from the fact that there is an increasing demand for agriculture land and water resources for the production of bio-fuel at the expense of food crops.

  • For example, “In recent years, 40 percent of US corn was converted into ethanol. Using corn to power our cars and trucks can strain our food supplies.
  • In addition, the industrial production of corn has led to algae blooms in local water ways, harming aquatic life. Advanced bio-fuels like algae have potential to produce fuel without threatening food supplies and with less demand on water and energy “(Grace).
  • Again, most agriculture lands in many parts of the world are threatened by water scarcity. It typically takes 3,000 – 5,000 litres of water to produce 1 kg of rice, 2,000 litres for 1kg of soya, 900 litres for 1kg of wheat and 500 litres for 1kg of potatoes. (WWF).
  • Oil extraction has resulted in the pollution of fresh water bodies as well as marine pollution which threatens fish stock, which is a major source of protein in Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Food security may affect water security as land use decisions have an impact on water quality and availability. For example, if land is used for crop cultivation, it may lead to the pollution of water bodies through the release of chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers.

The importance of WFE nexus in sustainable resource management

  • The nexus approach is important in that it helps to deepen our understanding of the relationship that exist between water, food and energy, including issues of global concerns such as climate change and biodiversity.
  • It also enlightens us on the need to consider multidisciplinary solutions to issues relating to food, water and energy, rather than seeing these as independent entities that require independent solutions.
  • The nexus approach can be applied at all scales – local, national, global levels as well as from the perspective of governments, non-governmental organizations, civil society, organizations, research institutions etc. These stakeholders, at various sectors and scales, must clearly understand the need to sustainably manage natural resources. This the value of WFE nexus approach.
  • It is also useful for understanding the circular economy concept, thus emphasizing the possibility of recycling as a way of maximizing the sustainable use natural resources.
  • Geopolitical considerations in respect of food, energy and water have now been factored into many ecological discourse, thus calling for a collective approach to solving crisis relating to international resources. A good example is the challenge of managing the water in the Volta Lake in Ghana, due to the construction of the Bagre Dam in Burkina Faso. The nexus approach could help ease the tension between Ghana and its neighbors over the management of water resources.
  • Notwithstanding the value placed on the WFE nexus, there are some weaknesses or challenges associated with the concept. Some have argued that the WFE concept is nothing new, as organizations such as the UN have, in the past,  spearheaded the need for countries to manage water, food and energy resources sustainably.

Application of water, food and energy nexus

Case Study 1: The Water- Food-Energy nexus can be applied in the case of the Volta River Project in Ghana. The Volta River is fed by three major tributaries – the White, Red and Black Volta rivers, which take their sources from the Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso.

Akosombo Dam. Source:

As a result of the short rainy season in these landlocked countries, the White and Black Volta rivers have be dammed in Burkina Faso to provide water for domestic purposes, irrigation as well as cattle rearing. On the other hand, the water from these rivers supply water to the Volta Lake to generate hydroelectric power for Ghana, Togo and neighboring Ivory Coast as well as for domestic consumption.

During the dry season in Ghana, the water level in the Volta lake falls below the minimum water level required to operate the HEP plant. This usually leads to conflicts of sustainability resulting from the use of the water resource: Burkina Faso needs water for irrigation (food security) and Ghana needs it for energy production (energy security) as well as domestic consumption (water security).

The nexus approach, therefore is very useful in providing an integrated solution for managing the water from  these rivers.

Case Study 2: Another example of the application of the the WFE nexus is the ongoing geopolitical tension between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over the Nile River. Ethiopia needs it for their hydroelectricity project, Sudan needs it for agriculture and industrial use and Egypt historically has priority over the other countries in controlling the water from the Nile. These have implications on the water/food/energy nexus.

A presentation by the Ethiopian students of the class of 2021 gives more details on the geopolitical implications of the Nile River.

The effects of climate change on the water- food- energy nexus

Climate change is most likely going to be a threat to the WFE nexus. Consequently, there is the need to assess the impact of climate change on water, food and energy resources.

Effects of climate change on water supply

  • Climate change will increase the amount of water vapor present in the air through evaporation, resulting from high temperatures. This means high rainfall (flooding) in some areas whilst areas close to deserts become drier.
  • The melting of snow on mountain tops can cause a decline in the supply of fresh water to lakes and rivers, which could negatively impact on the amount of water available for irrigation.
  •  High rainfall can cause sewers to overflow into safe drinking water sources, leading to the contamination of water and the possible outbreak of cholera and other waterborne diseases
  • Rise in sea-level due to melting snow in the polar regions can lead to saltwater intrusion into freshwater sources near coastal areas

Effects of climate change on food supply

  • Heavy rainfall due to high temperatures can cause waterloggging in lowlying areas, thus rendering them unsuitable for crop cultivation. Heavy rainfall could also lower food production due to soil erosion
  • Sahel regions might become drier due to intense sunshine: desertification and land degradation may negatively affect crop cultivation
  • Drier conditions developing in the Sahel regions could also affect cattle rearing
  • There may be a decline in fish stock due to increased sea temperatures
  • Unreliable rainfall patterns could cause a decline in crop yields in savanna areas

Effects of climate change on energy supply

  • The melting of ice on mountainous areas can affect the supply of fresh water that flow into rivers,  thereby cause hydroelectric power plants to run out water for energy generation
  • Intense heat in some parts of the world can provide opportunities for tapping the sun’s energy for solar power
  • The melting on ice in the polar regions could expose lands rich in oil or gas reserves. For example, new deposits of oil and gas have been discovered in the North Pole, where exploration by some oil companies have already started

Detailed examples of two countries with contrasting levels of resource security

1. Case Study – Climate change and the food energy nexus in South Africa

Note the adaptation strategies in these two areas.

The disposal and recycling of consumer items, including international flows of waste

Waste management is an important aspect of the ecological footprint definition. Waste is generated in many parts of the developed world, including the emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil. Waste, in the context of this topic, refers to electronic waste that is generated from out-dated devices that are no longer needed.

Electronic waste, or e-waste, refers to all items of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) and its parts that have been discarded by its owner as waste without the intent of re-use (Step Initiative 2014).

According to Baldé et al., 2015a, e-waste covers six categories:

  • Temperature exchange equipment, more commonly referred to as cooling and freezing equipment. E.g refrigerators, freezers, air conditioners etc
  • Screens, monitors. E.g televisions, monitors, laptops, notebooks, and tablets.
  • Lamps. E.g fluorescent lamps, high intensity discharge lamps, and LED lamps.
  • Large equipment. Typical equipment includes washing machines, clothes dryers, dish-washing machines, electric stoves, large printing machines, copying equipment, and photovoltaic panels.
  • Small equipment. Typical equipment includes vacuum cleaners, microwaves, ventilation equipment, toasters, electric kettles, electric shavers, scales, calculators, radio sets, video cameras, electrical and electronic toys, small electrical and electronic tools, small medical devices, small monitoring and control instruments.
  • Small IT and telecommunication equipment. Typical equipment includes mobile phones, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), pocket calculators, routers, personal computers, printers, telephones.

In 2016, a staggering 44.7 million metric tonnes (Mt) of e-waste were generated— up 3.3 Mt or 8% from 2014. This is equal in weight to almost nine Great Pyramids of Giza, 4,500 Eiffel Towers, or 1.23 million fully loaded 18-wheel 40-ton trucks, enough to form a line 28,160 km long, the distance from New York to Bangkok and back (Global E-waste Monitor, 2017).(ITU)

E-waste presents several challenges to the achievement of the sustainable development goals. A better understanding and more data on e-waste will contribute to the achievement of the sdgs related to environmental protection (Goal 6,11,12 and 14) and health (Goal 3). It may also create employment and economic growth (Goal 8).

The top three countries that produce the most e-waste are:

  1. The United States
  2. The European Union
  3. Russia


Much of the e waste originating from high income countries are transported to low income countries for disposal or recycling. The main destinations are from:

  1. Europe to Ghana (Agbobgloshie)
  2. The United States to India and China
  3. The United States to Nigeria

China leads the global waste trade, importing about 3 million tonnes of plastic waste and 15 million tonnes of paper and cardboard every year. Including vast amounts coming from the EU. However, 31st December 2017, China declared that she did not want to receive waste from any country any further.

  • Ship-breaking is undertaken in Bangladesh on a large. These ships are usually old, decommissioned ships that need to be recyled. Because Bangladesh offers cheap labour, most companies transport the ships there for recycling. This ends up causing pollution in the country; damaging water bodies and impacting on the health of the people involved.
  • Trafigura is another example of a petrochemical company that shipped toxic/hazardous waste from Switzerland to the Ivory Coast and cause serious pollution to area around the port and beyond. It is believed that a number of people lost their lives in the process of transferring the waste from the ship to the country side.

Trafigura found guilty of exporting toxic waste

  • The transportation e-waste from the US and EU to Ghana, Agbogbloshie, which has resulted in the pollution of water bodies and the discharge of mercury as well as other hazardous substances, causing land pollution and impacting negatively on the health of the people involved in dismantling the e-waste.


  1. It generates employment for the local people. For example: Agbobloshie in Ghana- many young people are employed in the E-waste dump.

Question: Examine the extent to which the movement of e-waste from core to periphery regions can hinder the success of some of the SDGs.

Click: The world’s largest e-waste dump in pictures


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