The collapsing energy, water and food triangle in Asia

The collapsing energy, water and food triangle in Asia

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Date: 5th February 2014
Author: Elizabeth Gogoi
Type: Feature
Tags: agriculture, Delhi Sustainable Development Summit, Delhi Sustainable Development Summit, energy, agriculture, food security, Madurai, water, sustainable water management

“Interlinked challenges cannot be solved by tinkering merely on the edges”

Kofi Annan, speaking at this year’s Delhi Sustainable Development Summit (DSDS) in Delhi last week summarised in this single sentence three days of discussion on the theme of “Attaining energy, water and food security for all” with delegates from across the world.

Presenters at DSDS quoted facts and figures on energy, water and food security to paint a dramatic picture. 60% of the world’s hungry people live in Asia.  In India, 17.5% of the population are food insecure, in Sri Lanka it is 24% and in Tajikistan it is over 30%. In 2012, total energy consumption grew by 3% in Asia, double the global average. And, by 2050, 1 billion people living in urban areas could be living in water scarcity.

Politicians, academics and practitioners at the DSDS repeatedly stressed that the crisis facing the three sectors of energy, water and food are highly interconnected. In Asia between 60-90% of a country’s annual freshwater feed is directed towards agriculture. 7% of total global energy consumption is for the delivery of water.  And, the production of energy, even the most efficient type, is incredibly water intensive.

Despite the interconnections between each sector being well recognised, we continue to deal with each separately. This sectoral approach naturally leads to conflict between them. Conflicts such as how much water should be ‘diverted’ for production of food as compared to providing drinking water. Policies aiming to boost production and efficiency in just one sector run the risk of being ineffective, opportunities for generating wider benefits can be missed, and even unintended consequences can occur.

Climate change is making these conflicts worse and will continue to.  Erratic rainfall patterns are making water resources even scarcer. Current agricultural production methods are proving to be ineffective in the face of increasing temperatures. And the world will eventually have to turn away from fossil fuel based energy sources.

These challenges are well known. But, the nexus between energy, water and food appears to be nobody’s responsibility.  Sectoral ministries deal with their respective sector only. Donors tend to organise their work, and support research and technical assistance in a particular sector. Even practitioners and stakeholders working to promote a cross-sector approach complain that they are forced to work with a particular sector ministry which automatically narrows the scope of their intervention.

Dr Srivastava from TERI posed the question during a DSDS session, “as there is no agency or institution dealing with the ‘nexus’ issues, how do we deal with them?” Despite the impressive line-up of experts and world leaders at the conference, this critical question was largely left unanswered.

CDKN is supporting research and technical assistance across the world that we hope will give some ideas for how to overcome institutional and policy barriers to tackling integrated problems in an integrated fashion.

One such initiative is in the medium-sized Indian city of Madurai where CDKN is supporting a team from Atkins and IIHS to work with the municipal corporation to overcome their traditional sectoral approach to urban development, and develop an action plan for tackling an integrated set of current and future risks across the energy, water and food nexus in the context of a changing climate.

This project has given some important insights into this debate, and crucially some useful policy and practice solutions:

-          Synergies across sectors are easier to achieve at the local level. Vulnerable communities more than anyone understand the interconnections between water, food and agriculture as often on a daily basis they have to decide which to prioritise. Therefore, bottom-up solutions to increasing efficiencies across sectors should be attempted. Developing and scaling-out local level innovations, such as energy efficient drip irrigation systems for agricultural production, will provide many of the triple-wins which are needed.

-          Breaking down institutional barriers across sectors requires new forms of dialogue. The usual practice when a sectoral department is attempting to get inputs from another department, is to convene a ‘consultation’. This is hosted in their office, chaired by their senior official, and agenda set to their priorities. The level of open debate is therefore limited. In Madurai a novel new method is being tested. ‘Water Walks’ involve stakeholders and officials from across sectors walking together to meet vulnerable communities living along the river edge to help them understand the interconnected challenges they face. These have proven to be extremely effective in facilitating ‘out-of-the box’ thinking, and are being taken up by others beyond the project.

 -          Hierarchy can (sometimes) be useful. In countries such as India, the bureaucratic and political system is extremely hierarchical and top-down. In most instances this works against innovative and holistic approaches to tackling ‘nexus issues’. However, if the most senior official or politician gives a top-down directive for joint decision-making or actions across departments then things tend to happen. This compensates for the lack of an agency in charge of dealing with the interconnections across sectors.


In Madurai we are utilising these and other strategies to get action on future proofing the city for an integrated set of current and future development and climate risks. As the project progresses we will carry out more in-depth reflection on what we have learnt and how others can replicate some of the institutional innovations.

For more information, contact

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