Beer: The Perfect Illustration of the Water-Energy-Food Nexus?October 5, 2012 By Kate Diamond
The water-energy-food nexus seems to be garnering more and more attention in the media and elsewhere, and it’s easy to see why: it’s a relatively simple way to illustrate how interconnected the world is today and the kind of domino-like effects that scarcity can have. We’ve talked about this nexus in various forms on the blog – from its importance at Rio+20 to the its inclusion in this year’s U.S. government water intelligence assessment – and the Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum, in partnership with water advocacy group Circle of Blue, has been looking at the water-energy relationship in China and the United States for some time with their Choke Point series. But we’re not sure we’ve ever seen it explained so eloquently and simply as in this video, from multinational brewing and beverage company, SAB Miller.
“Everyone has a right to security of water, energy, and food,” SAB Miller explains, “but in a world of 7 billion people, 1.1 billion live without clean drinking water, 1.3 billion live without electricity, 1.02 billion are hungry.” With water, energy, and food insecurity already pressing problems, “population growth and urbanization mean that by 2030, we’ll need 30 percent more water, 40 percent more energy, 50 percent more food.”
Water, energy, and food are interrelated in a number of ways. Energy production is hugely dependent on water, sometimes in obvious ways (hydropower), other times more indirectly (certain types of coal must be washed before it can be processed for use as fuel). Food production, especially large-scale agriculture, depends both on energy and water as essential inputs. Given those connections, changes in one can drastically affect the other – this year’s drought in the United States, for example, besides reducing crops and contributing to high food prices globally, also offered a warning of the extent to which water shortages can impact energy supplies (half the country’s daily water withdrawals are for cooling power plants).
Focusing on just one piece of the triad can lead to collateral damage elsewhere. The popularity of biofuels as an alternative fuel, for instance, has brought unintended consequences for food and water. “Biofuels consume 20 times as much water as gasoline per mile covered. By competing for cropland, biofuels have increased cereal prices on world markets,” SAB Miller points out.
But the video emphasizes the importance of water above all, pointing out that “water is not substitutable, or replaceable. We cannot create or grow more of it.” And yet, many countries are using groundwater faster than it can be replenished (China, by 25 percent;India by 56 percent, according to SAB Miller). Over the next 13 years, the number of people living in water-stressed countries will grow from 700 million to 3 billion, the narrator continues.
“If we carry on as we are, our problems will only increase, especially in an age of global warming and population growth,” SAB Miller portends.
To address these connections, the beverage company says they’re generating renewable energy from reclaimed agricultural waste and wastewater, improving the yields of small-holder farmers, and reducing the water and energy used in their brewing and packaging processes.
The video is a great introduction to the relationship between the three prongs of the water-energy-food triad. But not surprisingly there’s a lot more to unpack. For example, the impact of climate change and population growth will have a very large effect on the water-energy-food nexus – perhaps to an extent that’s underrepresented here. The difference between the UN’s high and low projections for mid-century world population is 2.5 billion people, and climate change will have a large impact on arable land and growing patterns, but scientists still aren’t clear to what degree and where exactly. There’s a great deal of uncertainty in both climate and population projections, which means our decisions regarding them (healthcare, women’s empowerment, consumption patterns for population; carbon reduction and mitigation/adaptation strategies for climate change) matter a great deal.
That the video is coming from a beer company adds a unique angle to that message; for all the importance placed on working across silos and taking a cross-sectoral approach to tackling resource challenges in a growing world, it is encouraging to see new and unexpected participants join the conversation.
Sources: The New York Times, United Nations Population Division.
Video: SAB Miller.