The water-energy-food nexus of Pakistan


By Dr Afreen Siddiqi in

The federal government has put energy security at the top of its development agenda in its Vision 2025. While energy certainly needs prioritised attention, it should be integrated with water and food security of the country. Over the last few decades, modern technologies in water, energy and agriculture have created dependencies such that the three sectors have become intimately connected. Water generates electricity in hydropower plants, cools thermal power and nuclear power plants, and is used to mine coal and extract oil and gas. Energy is increasingly being used to desalinate saline water and to distribute water in urban piped networks. Food production also increasingly requires energy to pump groundwater and process agricultural produce. Natural gas is consumed in manufacturing nitrogen fertilisers that are used for boosting crop production. These interconnections, often called the ‘water-energy-food nexus’, are increasing in significance as demands grow with an exponentially increasing population while resources remain constrained.

Failure to recognise and incorporate these issues in infrastructure development decisions can lead to adverse outcomes. Recent events are sounding alarm bells for decision-makers to take heed. In 2009, France had to shut down one-third of its nuclear power capacity located on inland rivers due to a heat wave that caused disruptions in cooling. In China, the water shortage in its north has slowed development of coal-to-liquid projects that are needed to meet the country’s energy demands.

A number of corporations, international agencies and governments are now engaged in a scenario planning to consider the impacts of this water-energy-food nexus on future operations and economic implications. While recognition of the interconnections is important at a global level, information about local resources and established infrastructure is needed for informing national policies. In Pakistan, water and energy have traditionally been interlinked through hydropower plants and large multipurpose dams. However, new interactions have emerged between water, energy and agriculture sectors that are poorly understood.

Crop production in the heartlands of Pakistan — served by a massive network of canals — now increasingly relies on energy consuming groundwater pumps to meet irrigation needs. A million tube wells are reportedly installed in Punjab alone, and energy use in pumping and farm operations may account for up to one-fifth of the province’s energy consumption. This link between energy, irrigation water and agriculture needs to be investigated with improved data collection and policy action.

The coal deposits of Thar in Sindh promise energy supply on one hand, but will place demands on water resources in the arid region on the other. The new hydropower plants, currently under development in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, will further enmesh energy and water. For systems that are expected to function for decades to come, the implications of water and of energy must be evaluated if future water supplies in the Indus and its tributaries get affected due to climate change or face disruptions in flow across national boundaries. The use of multipurpose dams should be assessed for the economic tradeoffs that result between ensuring food security (by prioritising supply for irrigation demands) versus cheap hydroelectric power that is desperately needed in the industrial and domestic sectors.

Managing each resource separately can lead to decisions that seemingly improve supply in one sector, but in reality, create problems in others. If the linkages are incorporated in policy evaluation, then unintended consequences may be avoided while multiple problems may simultaneously get addressed. Such integrated decision-making will require a combination of three factors:

1) highest level of sustained political commitment of providing long-term energy, water and food security for the nation;

2) cross-sector organisational linkages for information and knowledge exchange, and for joint identification of synergistic policies and plans;

3) collection of accurate and comprehensive information

Equitable and sustainable access to water, food and energy forms the basis of a high quality of life for the citizens of a new and prosperous Pakistan. It is time to put new ways of thinking in place.