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The world’s water, energy and food systems are tightly linked. Water is needed to extract energy and generate power; energy is needed to treat and transport water; and both water and energy are needed to grow food. In the coming decades these vital resources will come under greater pressure. Working across industries and sectors will help address their complex relationship, known as the energy-water-food nexus.
The world’s growing population and increased prosperity will put pressure on global demand for energy, as well as on food and water supplies in the coming decades. This relationship between energy, water and food is appearing on the agendas of governments, NGOs and businesses, including Shell.
To better understand the connections between energy, water and food systems, we brought together academics, specialists from industry, along with experts from governments and non-governmental organisations in 2011.
Our work together through research activities and meetings highlighted two main ways to help tackle the stresses on energy, water and food: greenhouse gas regulation and pricing, and more sustainable urban development: for example, designing smarter, energy-efficient cities could help reduce demand for energy and water. Such cities would integrate transport, energy, water and waste systems much more effectively than today’s cities.
To improve the measurement of water use in industry, in 2011 we also worked with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and the University of Utrecht to develop a new methodology. Now we can estimate more accurately the amount of water needed to generate energy from different sources, using different technologies and in different locations.
We have also been engaging in a public dialogue about the energy-water-food nexus, and staged a large-scale events on this topic, the most recent in May 2013 in Rotterdam, The Netherlands.
In another initiative we joined with experts from The Dow Chemical Company, Swiss Re, Unilever and The Nature Conservancy in 2013.
We investigated the potential of natural elements to boost resilience in the energy industry, such as oyster beds for coastal protection and reed beds to clean industrial water.
The research suggests that traditional technologies, so-called grey infrastructure, and elements from systems, known as green infrastructure, have different benefits.
A natural system may not need a power supply, for example, while a conventional engineering system does. However, the natural system may take years to grow, whereas engineering systems can be ready for immediate use.
A combined approach would therefore offer the most resilience.