Global demand for energy will increase 30 percent by 2030, according to estimates, but in regions that are experiencing rapid economic growth, the increased demand for energy will lead to increased demand for water. The conflicting nature of achieving both water and energy security is exacerbated by a lack of institutional policy frameworks that integrate both concepts. However, the upcoming UN Rio+20 Sustainable Development Conference could provide an opportunity to change that.
Breaking Down Sustainability
Despite its emerging importance as an international relations concept, sustainability has been fragmented to reflect different economic, environmental, social, and cultural agendas. The lack of a common framework is reflected in the disjointed understanding of the water and energy nexus. More often than not, water-basin committees are only consulted when energy decisions are related to hydropower, and they are left out of consultations about alternative energy sources and land planning, even though such decisions have a direct impact on water resources.
Other examples of energy decisions impacting the water sector include the Canadian oil sands, where extraction techniques can consume 20 times more water than conventional oil drilling; irrigated first-generation and soy- and corn-based biofuels, which consume thousands times more water than traditional oil drilling; and solar thermal electricity, as opposed to photovoltaic electricity, which consumes twice as much water as a coal power plant. According to the Wilson Center/Circle of Blue Choke Point project, China will need perhaps 20 billion cubic meters of water a year (5.3 trillion gallons) over the next decade to meet its expanding coal power needs. Meanwhile, from 2000 to 2009, China’s total water reserves fell 1.5 percent annually.
Bring It to Rio
Is this a zero-sum, Kobayashi Maru-like scenario then? It doesn’t have to be if we expand our understanding of sustainability.
OnEarth Magazine’s Ben Jarvey at SXSW Eco.
A holistic understanding of the water-energy nexus is already present in regional documents such as the Organization of American States’ Declaration of Santa Cruz+10. The declaration recognizes that to be sustainable, every aspect of a nation – its energy matrix, water resource management, emergency planning, forest management, and governance – needs to be addressed to reach true sustainability. The nexus is also discussed in other documents such as the Stockholm Statement, but what is truly needed is a place on the agenda of the UN sustainable development conference next year in Rio de Janeiro.
Most of the major groups of the UN Division for Sustainable Development have released statements supporting the incorporation of the water-energy nexus within the Rio+20 discussions; these groups represent children and youth, women, free trade unions and businesses, scientists, and indigenous communities. The European Union has already established the water and energy nexus as one of the main challenges for the green economy. However, many of the key players within the negotiation process, including the United States, Brazil, India, and China, have not included the water-energy nexus in their official position papers.
To gather the support of these remaining actors, representatives of the Major Groups must advocate for the proposal at the national level. For example, the U.S. Senate is reviewing the Water and Energy Integration Act of 2011 (S.1343). If this bill were to be approved, it will be easier to push for the inclusion of the nexus approach in the official U.S. position paper for Rio+20. Civil society must aim to build domestic support for the inclusion of the water-energy nexus and a whole system approach before the third UNCSD Preparatory Committee Meeting, where the overall agenda for Rio+20 will be set. The inclusion of the nexus in the final agenda will only be possible if true engagement and dialogue between state and non-state actors is developed prior to the conference.
Although it is only one step, the incorporation of the water-energy nexus in the Rio agenda would help to expand our understanding of sustainability, in as official a way as possible, to encompass its truly cross-sectoral reach. Given the importance that the previous Earth Summit had for developing sustainable development goals, global leaders need to take this opportunity to incorporate the water and energy nexus into new discussions to validate its importance as a sustainability concept. This is essential to promote and deliver comprehensive frameworks at a local and regional level that account for the intricacies of an interconnected world.
Sources: Council of the European Union, GovTrack.us, Organization of American States, UN Development Programme, UN Environment Programme, World Economic Forum, World Policy Institute, World Water Week.