The global challenge of access to water, food and energy
November 14, 2018
By Maria Fernanda Ziegler | Agência FAPESP – Among the world’s major as yet unsolved problems is the need for better access to water, food and energy to keep pace with population growth, urbanization and changes in diet, among other factors. Climate change is also one of the drivers, of course.
Water, food and energy all have significant social and environmental impacts, especially because today they are largely in conflict. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), agriculture is the world’s largest consumer of water, and more than a quarter of the energy consumed globally is used to produce and distribute food.
Feeding a global population set to reach 9 billion by 2050 will require a 60% increase in food production. Water and energy consumption will also rise as a result.
This was the context for the São Paulo School of Advanced Science on the Water-Energy-Food Nexus (WEF Nexus), held on October 15-26, 2018, at the University of Campinas’s School of Engineering, Architecture and Urbanism (FEC-UNICAMP) in São Paulo State, Brazil. The event was supported by FAPESP and by UNICAMP’s Interdisciplinary Center for Energy Planning (NIPE).
“The problem has social, environmental and economic relevance for Brazil. We need to think about the science of the water-energy-food nexus in a new way, taking the conflicts into account,” said José Roberto Guimarães, Full Professor at FEC-UNICAMP and principal investigator for WEF Nexus.
Funded by FAPESP through its São Paulo School of Advanced Science Program (SPSAS), the event was attended by 80 students, of whom 40 were from Brazil and 40 from other countries. Among its aims was attracting talented students to take graduate courses and work at research institutions in São Paulo State.
It discussed complex systems and the social, economic and environmental impacts of decisions related to technological innovation, resource management, and public policy on water, energy and food.
“All the changes we’re experiencing must be covered by planning policies, but people are realizing that if these three areas are treated systemically, it will be possible to reduce conflicts and enhance efficiency. The School’s aim was to integrate research on water, energy and food,” said Paulo Sergio Franco Barbosa, Full Professor in UNICAMP’s Graduate Program on Water, Energy and Environmental Resources and one of the organizers of WEF Nexus.
The new approach to the water-energy-food nexus and the idea of proposing integrated solutions to these problems can be seen as a trend in the research sector. For example, the FAPESP Research Programs on Biodiversity Characterization, Conservation, Restoration and Sustainable Use (BIOTA-FAPESP) and Global Climate Change (RPGCC) are initiatives designed to offer integrated opportunities in science. Other funding agencies, such as the US National Science Foundation (NSF), have programs with similar aims.
“The debate about the tensions among water, energy and food, as well as their interdependence, offers the potential for more integrated science involving engineering, agronomy, hydrology and social sciences. However, it is important to bear in mind that the reason for our concern with the water-food-energy nexus is the problem of people’s access to these three resources. People must be taken into account on day one of any project,” said Emílio Moran, a professor at UNICAMP and at Michigan State University in the US.
Moran is the principal investigator for a research project examining the social and environmental impact of the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric development near Altamira, Pará State, Northern Brazil. The project is supported by FAPESP under its São Paulo Excellence Chair program (SPEC).
“In the case of Belo Monte, if people had been considered on day one, they might not even have built the dam,” Moran told Agência FAPESP. “At least, they would have allowed more time for local government to prepare for the project’s enormous impact on the region. There would have been a more careful assessment of its impact on fishing, for example. More hospitals and schools would have been built. More law enforcement personnel would have been recruited before construction began.”
Moran is critical of much research for not taking the human side into account. “For this reason, my goal at this São Paulo School of Advanced Science was to raise the group’s awareness of the human dimension. There has to be more of an effort to integrate the social community into the study of the water-food-energy nexus,” he said.
According to Barbosa, a concrete example of how projects that address this nexus are more efficient can be found in Brazil’s Northeast region. “The region’s energy balance has changed in the last four years, with wind power accounting for a larger share of electricity generation. This change is very important to endeavors to address the impact of drought and mitigate the water stress caused by the severe drought seen there for at least three years,” Barbosa told Agência FAPESP.
In his view, there are initiatives that can act in all three areas (water, food and energy). “This is the means found by the international scientific community to conduct research and to put forward public policy proposals,” he said.
Elaborating on the example of the nexus in the Northeast, Barbosa noted that wind power expansion there saved approximately 40% of the volume of water stored by dams along the São Francisco River during the 2014-15 drought.
“According to estimates, some 40% of the water stored in reservoirs was economized in a 12-month period,” he said. “Without the expansion of electricity generation from other sources, therefore, there would have been a shortage of power and/or impairment of other water uses such as irrigation and urban potable water supply.”
For Paula Prado Siqueira, a master’s student at the Federal University of Mato Grosso do Sul (UFMS), participating in WEF Nexus was an outstanding opportunity to find out about the most advanced research in progress at other universities and in other countries.
Siqueira is also developing a project in Brazil’s northeast region. “I’m studying the nexus in the São Francisco Basin, where conflicts among the three factors are inescapable,” she said. “If the reservoirs fall below a certain level, power generation shuts down. If it doesn’t rain or if too much water is used for irrigation, this diminishes the production of electricity.”
More information about the São Paulo School of Advanced Science on the Water-Energy-Food Nexus: spsas-wefnexus.org.
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