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Harvesting the 'Nothing' As world population soars, it is essential to acknowledge the water-food-energy nexus as a critical pedestal for balancing resources.

Millennium Post
By Professor  

Just a year ago, while attending a workshop in Delhi on social dimensions of Climate Change, I was taken aback by a recurring comment: "over time, we have increasingly mastered the art of harvesting the nothing". Sounded pretty sarcastic at that time. But a study by the McKinsey Global Institute reflects the same in a roundabout way—real commodity prices (food, electricity, fuels, water etc.) have increased by nearly 147 per cent, since the turn of the century. This implies, keeping in mind the recent shocks in global food and fuels market and depreciation in the US and British currency, livelihood choices for a vast cross-section, especially the marginal population, is rapidly dropping to nothing.


This becomes more a reality when considered against factsheets released by the UN suggesting that aggressive human expansion/encroachment has cut down global ecosystem services by about 60 per cent since the mid-20th century and is currently approaching appalling minima. When measured against projected population growth—from little over seven, presently to about nine billion by 2050—opportunities of exploiting available natural resources sustainably seem pretty slim.


Many social and economic indicators already began pointing at the misappropriation of human rights and social justice in many developing nations, owing to mounting tensions/conflict situations between livelihood groups, over a diminishing resource base. The situation worsens with climatic shifts rapidly making inroads in everyday existence, with the effect of weakening public supply services and pits in institutional governance framework. This is commonplace through vast stretches of Sub-Sahara Africa and the Sahel region, almost the whole of Middle East, even in parts of South Asia and the Asia Pacific—the combination of Climate Change is undermining institutional make-ups and escalating conflict risks, even to the extent of eventual system failure. In case of the latter, resultant social ramifications, in a negative feedback loop, is again gravely downscaling likelihood of sustainable resource sharing opportunities.


In this regard, the interlocked challenges in the water, food and energy sectors assume critical centrality. By 2050, global freshwater withdrawal is projected for about 55 per cent rise and energy demand by over a third of the current demand. But over 900 million people still lack clean water source and over three billion people, living under 2.5 USD/day, are challenged by shared concerns over water and energy. It becomes more appalling considering that today, 90 per cent of global power generation (electricity) hinges on freshwater availability. Under the circumstances, when the issue of food insecurity enters the nexus, it points at a really grim future. Water and energy are critical to every stage of the food supply chain—be it production, storage, processing, distribution, retailing—and thus, challenges to one sector inevitably spills onto others.


What influences the water-food-energy (WFE) Nexus? The UN's Economic and Social Commission for Asia Pacific (ESCAP) clues into five key facets: (1) lack of undeveloped resource preserves; (2) challenges of exploiting new resources; (3) emergence of new consumers; (4) volatility of resource prices; and (5) changing equations between the state and non-state actors in the governance framework.


We still fail to see how WFE is rapidly becoming a geopolitical tool, having capacities to resolve or ignite long-ranging border disputes. Transboundary river basin disputes, over water sharing (irrigation and potable supplies) and/or rights toward hydropower (electricity) establishments are examples where WFE can be studied (Indus and Brahmaputra in India, the Nile in Africa that involves eleven countries). Such disputes build around an emerging concept in hydro-political studies, known as hydrosolidarity, on grounds of potential co-existence via equitable resource sharing.


But a more everyday example of WFE nexus is the debate over providing electricity subsidies (even making it tariff-free) to agricultural users in India. In a nutshell, our farmers, while chasing rapidly declining water-levels, are compelled to rely on electric-powered pump-sets. But owing to erratic voltage fluctuations, outdated machinery, pitted by highly sporadic/unpredictable power supply services etc., production suffers terrible setbacks. In recent times, it has caused acute water-energy shortages in many parts of India, translating into unprecedented crop losses that have led to grave socioeconomic burdens on smallholders. With all our efforts, we are practically harvesting the nothing for our future generations. A proof of that is steady declines/levelling off in our agricultural growth in recent past.


This is ironic. Why do we still have to rely on poor/ancient infrastructure that not only fails to meet irrigation supply demands but also leads to rampant electricity wastage and indulges in widespread corruption in the rural agrarian governance system, besides elevating ecosystem depletion/degradation risks? While the rest of the world is sailing way ahead with decisive moves towards the adoption of micro-irrigation-based (drips/sprinklers/pressurised pipes) agri-methods that have demonstrated capacity to optimise water-energy usage and resource savings, why do we still have to be largely at the mercy of weather?


True that our current Union Budget has attempted to pull things back a bit by marking up existing support on micro-irrigation to INR 5,000 crores. But the other side of the story is, a recent study conducted by the Irrigation Association of India (IAI), in collaboration with FICCI and Grant Thornton India LLP, estimates that even though we have a total micro-irrigation potential for 69 million hectares (more than China), only about eight million hectares is under micro-irrigation as of now. What's more, at the present rate of coverage –0.5 hectares/annum—it'll take us a century to get to the target coverage.


A curious fact—China has already achieved coverage of over 10 million hectares; established a bunch of stringent water tariff systems; brought up a visionary water policy plan ("3 Red Lines" –devised in 2011, enacted in 2012) to curb water wastage and pollution, as much as to improve irrigation and efficiency, and cut down on on-farm electricity consumption, along with instituting over 24 targetted water-energy policy reforms since 2010. Where do we stand in comparison? Can we (the un-politicised billion) name a single such nationwide eco-environmental policy that lends hand to the energy and food sector?


True that in a democratic framework, where every single livelihood choice is over-politicised and electoral dynamics fills the very core of existence, instituting stringent interventions (for example, setting up water-metering systems and/or stopping waiving electricity tariffs) may rage temporary havoc in the social system. But that is what we need – adopting a unified framework of academics, policy-makers and farmers, first to comprehend the full specter of water-energy nexus in the food sector, under future Climate Change projections; second, vie for cost-effective resource saving/sharing strategies; and third, ensure long-term governmental support for the widespread adoption of newer technologies. As for incentive, the IAI-FICCI study figured that tapping the theoretical maxima of micro-irrigation coverage (69 million hectares) in India, national savings on electricity can rise by about 30 per cent of the current level, (roughly equating to about INR 10,400 crores) and on fertiliser, by about 28 per cent (about INR 4.427 crores)!


As climatic factors keep sinking their teeth under our skin every day and population explosion takes resource shortage to soaring highs, the developing nations will be ever more pressed with the urgency for cleaner energy, sustainable and improved freshwater supply, and proportionate growth/diversification in the food sector. But unfortunately, a debilitating issue with most developing nations, including India, is, we still are at loss in appreciating the connection between issues of water, food, and energy—they are approached in isolation in the policy debates and thus interventions planned for one sector, largely offset perceived outcomes in others. This has to be dealt with haste. It is time to give ourselves a highly technocratic policy framework, untarnished by political dynamics, and with a strong social dimension.