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Demystifying The Water-Energy Nexus


As a lead-up to Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, January 13-17, Masdar sponsored a blogging contest called “Engage: The Water-Energy Nexus.”  The following post was the winner.

by Dallas Blaney

Although water and energy are intricately connected, this important relationship is poorly understood. While it is generally well known that water is essential to the production of energy, we nonetheless lack a detailed understanding of the quality and quantity of water used in this process (1). Conversely, we know that the treatment and distribution of water is energy intensive, yet we know very little about the energy required or how this demand has changed over time (2). Given the expectation of dramatically higher demands for energy and water over the coming years, this knowledge gap poses a significant threat to the long-term sustainability of our political,social, and economic systems.

Specialized research is, therefore, a necessary first step towards addressing the energy-water nexus. Fortunately, there are several indications that this research agenda is already taking shape. This March, the 6th World Water Forum in Marseille featured the energy-water nexus as a thematic priority within the broader context of its forum on economic development. Panel discussions on this theme focused on the potential for improved efficiency in water and energy delivery systems. However, panel discussions also revealed new research on the impacts of energy production on water quality and quantity. Two months later, a second indication of this emerging research agenda appeared with the publication of Gustaf Olsson’s new book, Water and Energy: Threats and Opportunities. This book marks the first attempt to develop a comprehensive assessment of the energy-water nexus. Substantive chapters examine the water demands for a range of energy production systems, including crude oil and hydropower.

However, Olsson also takes a surprising turn by situating the energy-water nexus within the context of food, population growth, and climate change. This shift allows Olsson to make a compelling case for expanding the scope of the research agenda, pushing scholars to place the quantitative drive for technological modernization on par with qualitative need for a change in attitudes (3).

For such a change to occur, people must first acknowledge that they have a problem. However, the mystery of the water-energy nexus extends far beyond the lofty halls and shiny boardrooms of elite decision-makers. In a recent survey, 77 percent of Americans polled could not even identify the natural source of the water used in their homes (4).

Therefore, the second step towards addressing the energy-water nexus is education. Once again, there are early indications that this initiative is already underway, only this time with non-governmental organizations like The Nature Conservancy, WWF, and Project WET leading the charge. Both The Nature Conservancy and WWF focus specifically on raising awareness within the business community. Capitalizing on their scientific expertise, these organizations have each developed water assessment tools that businesses can quickly and cheaply use to identify water-related inefficiencies and risks in their supply chains or production systems. In contrast, Project WET specializes in the creation of water-related textbooks and curricula for primary school children. Over time, these efforts have expanded beyond the U.S. to reach tens of thousands of students spread across 19 countries.

In the final analysis, there is no silver bullet for addressing the energy-water nexus; this challenge requires a comprehensive approach. As a precondition for developing such an approach, it is necessary to demystify the relationship between water and energy. Efforts to do so are already well underway. These efforts include the creation of a specialized research agenda on the energy-water nexus and grassroots campaigns to raise awareness about the severity of our water and energy challenges. However, the success of the efforts remains uncertain, which means that they will require additional support to achieve their full potential.

(1) Allen, Lucy, Michael J. Cohen, David Abelson, and Bart Miller. 2012. “Fossil Fuels and Water Quality” in Peter H. Gleick (ed) The World’s Water: The Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources, volume 7. Washington: Island Press: 73-96.

(2) Coates, David, Richard Connor, et al. 2012. “Water Demand: What Drives Consumption” in WWAP The United Nations World Water Development Report 4: Managing Water Under Uncertainty and Risk. Paris: UNESCO: 44-77.

(3) Olsson, Gustaf. 2012. Water and Energy: Threats and Opportunities. London: IWA Publishing.

(4) Herrin, Misty. 2011. “River and Lakes: Is Ignorance Bliss When it Comes to Our Water?” The Nature Conservancy News. Accessed 12/3/2012. http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/habitats/riverslakes/isignorance-bliss-when-it-comes-to-our-water.xml

[image credit: windsordi: Flickr cc]

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