The Water-Energy-Food nexus: Insights from Amazonia

The Water-Energy-Food nexus: Insights from Amazonia

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Date: 5th August 2016
Author: CDKN Global
Type: Feature
Tags: climate governance, deforestation, energy, food security, forests, sustainable livelihoods approaches, sustainable water management, water-energy-food nexus

Helen Bellfield and David Sabogal of the Global Canopy Programme look at how human needs for water, food and energy create a nexus of demands on natural resources in Amazonia and they draw lessons from the CDKN-backed Amazonia Security Agenda project.

Brazil, Colombia and Peru share over 80% of Amazonia and combined have lost an estimated 3 million hectares of forest per year between 2001 and 2014[1], largely as a result of agricultural and infrastructure expansion.[2]  It is increasingly recognised that the loss of tropical forests and their key ecosystem services will undermine the region’s long-term economic prosperity and capacity to maintain water, energy and food security.[3]

In addressing environmental degradation, climate change and its associated risks, Brazil, Colombia and Peru have taken important steps towards low-carbon development pathways[4], with a strong emphasis on forest preservation. For example, Colombia and Peru have pledged to achieve zero net deforestation by 2020 and 2021 respectively, and Brazil to end illegal deforestation by 2030.

Yet, Brazil, Colombia and Peru, among other countries in Amazonia, face a difficult challenge in balancing conservation and climate objectives while pursuing development agendas and meeting growing demands for food, water, and energy.

It is increasingly understood that reconciling these objectives and realising sustainability commitments, (e.g. the Sustainable Development Goals; the Paris Climate Agreement) will require more holistic and coordinated policy approaches.

In this context, the water-energy-food (WEF) nexus[5] has emerged as an important conceptual framework to improve natural resource governance. By accounting for interdependencies between water, energy and food systems, such an approach can support decision makers in evaluating resource trade-offs across different economic sectors and actors.

Applying the nexus approach in Amazonia

In applying the WEF nexus framework in Amazonia, as part of a policy coherence analysis[6] for Brazil, Colombia and Peru, the importance of this approach for identifying key policy gaps and conflicts – in particular around competing demands on water and land resource - is further highlighted.

The analysis shows how the envisaged expansion of planted forests, soy, sugar cane and palm oil production to meet both domestic renewable energy targets and export demands[7] has clear contradictions with climate objectives, given their historic and ongoing expansion in Amazonia. This is evidenced most recently in Peru where 72% of the current oil palm production has occurred at the expense of forest ecosystems.[8] More broadly studies[9]  also point to complex links between biodiesel production and indirect land use change in Amazonia as a result of the displacement of other crops/pasture into forestland. Similarly, the expansion of monoculture systems such as soy and sugar cane can be detrimental if it competes for water and land, drives up market prices, or displaces other crop varieties and subsistence farming systems that can contribute more directly to local food security and climate resilience.[10]  This is particularly relevant in Brazil where increases of 700,000 ha for sugar cane and 22 million ha for soy by 2023/2024 are envisaged under current policy objectives.[11]

Because both biofuel and food crops are predominately grown under rain fed conditions[12] and therefore depend on renewable water sources in the Amazon basin[13], ongoing forest loss and climate change pose considerable food and energy security risks.  The reduced water volumes and sedimentation associated with land use change can further impact energy security linked to hydropower generation, which currently forms the backbone of electricity sources in Colombia, 64%, and Peru, 53%[14], and is set to expand to almost 86% in Brazil by 2024. [15]

While these examples highlight the implications of current policy formulations in achieving water, energy and food security and broader sustainable development commitments in the region, the exercise also reveals particular limitations with this kind of assessment.

Limitations to this approach

Namely these centre around insufficient data/information and the lack of existing studies that capture the diversity of resource use dynamics across sectors.[16] The complexity of WEF systems means that the interdependencies are not easily disentangled without a clear evidence base to develop from. These constraints subsequently mean that much of our understanding on the interdependence between forest ecosystems and WEF security is largely superficial.

While general observations of WEF trade-offs have a role in spurring further questions and revisions in policy, they stop short of the detail needed to truly pinpoint actions and policy interventions.

Furthermore, given the changes in the economic, political and environmental landscapes of Amazonia over time, is also important to recognise the temporality of any coherence and WEF nexus assessment; pointing to the need to undertake ongoing WEF nexus analyses to account for new and changing variables.

Moving the WEF nexus approach forward

Accessible decision support tools that can help stakeholders to build future scenarios, identify policy responses, and quantify the resulting economic, environmental and social trade-offs across different actors are needed to help identify ‘quick wins’ and ‘low regret’ options for optimising water, energy and food security.[17]

Integrating the nexus approach in decision-making and governance instruments in Brazil, Colombia and Peru will require building a coherent WEF understanding and awareness across a coalition of public-private sector and local actors that govern water, food and energy resources.

This needs to be accompanied by a solid evidence base on the role of Amazonia and its sub-basins in underpinning WEF security that can inform landscape-specific assessments to allow different actors to formulate adequate policy. Analysing the distribution of risks, costs and opportunities across multiple stakeholders will also be critical in developing incentives to encourage aligned action around WEF objectives.

Such considerations will be vital in mobilising the resources and efforts required to integrated WEF thinking as part of a wider repertoire of approaches to strengthen institutions and policy frameworks to better manage natural resources and support a WEF security agenda in Amazonia.

To find out more about WEF nexus work undertaken in Amazonia please visit the Amazon Security website.

Read the newly-released policy brief by Global Canopy Programme, supported by CDKN: Amazonia Security Agenda - Assessing policy coherence in Brazil, Colombia and Peru using a water-energy-nexus approach.

Read the new policy brief by Global Canopy Programme and Stockholm Environment Institute, supported by CDKN: Improving Sustainable Commodity Supply Chains in Amazonia.


[1] Smith, J. 2015. Three Amazon nations, three approaches to reducing deforestation. Mongabay.

[2] Commercial agriculture is linked to around 2/3 of total deforestation area in Latina America. See: Kissinger, G., M. Herold, V. De Sy. Drivers of Deforestation and Forest Degradation: A Synthesis Report for REDD+ Policymakers. Lexeme Consulting, Vancouver Canada, August 2012.

[3] Mardas, N. Bellfield, H. Jarvis, A. Navarrete, C. & Comberti, C. 2013. Amazon Security Agenda: Summary of conclusions and recommendations. Global Canopy Programme: Oxford, United Kingdom.

[4] From business-as-usual scenario: 30% emissions reductions by 2030 in Peru; between 20-30% GHG emissions reduction by 2030 in Colombia - depending on international cooperation; and 37% in Brazil by 2025.

[5] For further reading see:

[6] National development, conservation and climate (adaptation and mitigation) policies, and their key objectives and targets across key land-based and energy sectors were mapped and then screened to identify policy synergies and conflicts related to water, energy and food security. The methodology is based on Nilsson, M. T. Zmaparutti, J.E. Petersen, B. Nykvistt, P. Rudberg, J. McGuinn. 2012. Understanding Policy Coherence: Analytical Framework and Examples of Sector-Environment Policy interactions in the EU. Environmental Policy and Governance. Env. Pol. Gov. 22, 395-423.

[7] China and the EU, the two largest importers of Brazilian soy products, both have regulations that require a certain proportion of transport fuels to be made from biofuels.

[8] Gutierrez-Velez, V. H., R. DeFries, M. Pinedo-Vasquez, M. Uriarte, C. Padoch, W. Baethgen, K. Fernandes, and Y. Lim. 2011. High-yield oil palm expansion spares land at the expense of forests in the Peruvian Amazon.  Environmental Research Letters 6.

[9] See: Pacheco, P. 2012. Soybean and oil palm expansion in South America: A review of main trends and implications. Working paper 90. CIFOR; FoE. 2010. Sugar cane and land use change in Brazil: Biofuel crops, indirect land use change and emissions. Briefing. Friends of the Earth Europe.

Arima, E. Y., Richards, P., Walker, R., & Caldas, M. M. (2011). Statistical confirmation of indirect land use change in the Brazilian Amazon. Environmental Research Letters, 6(2), 024010. Gao, Y. M. Skutsch, O. Masera, P. Pacheco A global analysis of deforestation due to biofuel development. Working paper 68. CIFOR.

[10] This is again highlighted in the semi-dry regions of Brazil, comprising the states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia (MaToPiBa), where soy expansion has shifted in recent years and ground water demands are increasing, threatening longer-term agricultural sustainability.

[11] Plano Decenal de Expansão de Energia (PDE) – 2024 and Brazil’s NDC.

[12] 95% of all water renewable water resources are consumed by agriculture sector in Latin America. Read more in the publication Willaarts, B.A.,  A. Garrido, L. De Stefano, M.R. Llamas. 2014. Seguridad Hídrica y Alimentaria en América Latina y el Caribe: Implicaciones regionales y globales. Fundación Botín.

[13] Studies shows that the replacement of forest for agriculture purposes will undermine key ecosystem services related the availability and quality of water resources.

[14] Plan de Energías Renovables (PER) 2011-2020.

[15] Plano Decenal de Expansão de Energia - 2024.

[16] Background paper for the Bonn 2011 Nexus Conference: The Water, Energy and Food Security Nexus.

[17] Analytical tools such as the Water Evaluation and Planning (WEAP) are already being used by decision-makers in the region, but need to be adapted to encompass the wider WEF nexus interconnections. Huila Department’s 2050 Climate Adaptation Plan in Colombia was informed by scenarios developed using the Water, Evaluation and Planning Tool (WEAP).


Image: Brazilian farmer, courtesy World Bank.

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