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FEATURE: Water, food and energy security trade-offs in Amazonia

The Amazonian region faces some tough trade-offs about the way natural resources are used, and climate change is only creating more pressure, say David Sabogal and Helen Bellfield of Global Canopy Programme. Contributions from Rachael Mountain and Alex Morrice. Their work is part of a CDKN-supported project that aims to improve climate-related security in the region.

Demographic shifts, growing resource demands and forest ecosystem degradation, coupled with climate extremes such as El Niño and climate change, have widespread implications for water, energy, food  security in Amazonia and beyond. Large-scale deforestation is predicted to reduce rainfall by up to 21%, which could have significant implications for agriculture and energy generation. Severe drought in 2010 led to USD 139 million of crop losses across the Brazilian Amazon.

Amazonia’s ecosystem services also underpin security far beyond the forest. For example, around 20% of the rain that falls in the La Plata Basin, a region which generates 70% of the GDP for the five countries that share it, comes from the Amazon. Large-scale deforestation is predicted to reduce rainfall by up to 21% by 2050.

These issues are intrinsically linked to one another. For example, changes in availability of water resources can have wider repercussions on the capacity to generate hydroelectric power, which affects energy security, and water insecurity also affects agricultural production and human wellbeing. Forests play a vital role in water security (and thus food and energy security) through their water regulation and purification services. The Amazon releases 8 trillion tonnes of water vapour into the atmosphere each year, recycling water from the Atlantic across the forest and transporting it over thousands of kilometres. One study suggests that the controversial Belo Monte dam in the Brazilian Amazon, which is projected to supply 40% of Brazil’s additional electricity needs by 2019, will have a significantly lower power output than expected due to regional deforestation – up to 13% lower than under a fully-forested scenario, and up to 36% lower by 2050 if current deforestation rates continue.

The role of forests in underpinning water, energy and food security as well as longer term economic prosperity and climate security is reflected in the Sustainable Development Goals. Forests are a focus of SDG 15, and have major significance to all 17. However, a key challenge for implementation of SDGs will be balancing inherent resource trade-offs across targets (e.g. with finite agricultural area, without increased productivity, food and biofuel production targets are unlikely to be met without further clearance of forests).

As demand for Amazonia’s resources continues to rise with ambitious national development plans aim towards accelerated development in the region, actors will need to recognize and manage resource trade-offs across sectors. However, safeguarding resources and managing resource risks in Amazonia is a complex and transversal issue requiring cross-sectoral and multi-scale coordination, and integration of environmental and development agendas across diverse and sometimes competing actors in the region.

The water-energy-food (WEF) nexus has been identified as a useful approach for addressing this challenge by identifying and evaluating resource trade-offs across different sectors. This approach recognises the interdependency between water, energy and food systems and their reliance on natural resources. The Amazonia Security Agenda Project is working closely with governments in Brazil, Colombia and Peru to use a WEF nexus approach in understanding coherence across wide range of development and environment plans.

In analysing resource security and trade-offs it is critical to engage key private sector companies and financial investors that are increasingly central to determining the fate of forest landscapes and their sustainable management. Often these private sector actors are based outside of the regions and countries being affected, yet have very real impacts on WEF security. For example, in 2007, South America was estimated to virtually export 178 km3 of water to Asia and Europe embedded in agricultural commodities, around 17% of the water used for food production in the region.

In exploring the role of the corporate sector in resource trade-offs the project is also focusing on key commodity supply chains (soy in Brazil, beef in Colombia and palm oil in Peru) to assess the level of public-private policy interactions and explore the ways in which the private sector can contribute towards meeting WEF security objectives.

This project is coordinated by the Global Canopy Programme, and counts on the technical support of the Stockholm Environment Institute, and partners Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation in Peru, Alisos in Colombia and WWF-Brazil.


Image: Amazonia, credit Rainforest Action Network,

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