Reducing Extreme Poverty Through the Water-Energy-Food Nexus

SAIS MA candidate Caitlin Smith offers ideas to enhance resiliency and reduce extreme poverty through the water-energy-food nexus.

Photo Credit: Deeba Yavrom

Note: The following piece is part of the SAIS Review‘s first web series on the topic of Sustainable Development and the Millennium Development Goals. For more information, please refer to the Sustainable Development web series page.

By Caitlin Smith

GOAL: Enhance resiliency and reduce extreme poverty through the water-energy-food nexus.


  1. Double global consumption of renewable energy
  2. Develop and implement multi-sector water management plans
  3. Improve water efficiency in agriculture by 25%, double rates of global energy efficiency, and reduce global food waste by 50%
  4. Extend the Aichi Biodiversity Targets to 2030



The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are an ambitious and unprecedented effort to reduce global rates of extreme poverty, improve health conditions of women and children, and boost environmental sustainability by 2015.[1] Building off of these goals, United Nations (UN) member countries have acknowledged that the interconnectedness of energy poverty, water insecurity, and poor food access undermine attempts to improve global standards of living. Between 2015 and 2030, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will focus on these cyclical aspects of poverty by integrating environmental protection, social progress, and economic growth into the development goals.[2] But these efforts will also coincide with the increasing impacts of climate change, which will stress global water and food supplies. Food, water, and energy are fundamental to sustainable development and linked at every stage of production and consumption; but they will become increasingly scarce in the next fifteen years.[3] Healthy ecosystems are vital to ensuring renewable access to arable land and freshwater, but many have been destroyed by rapid economic development. To reverse this trend, UN member countries adopted a Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011­–2020, otherwise termed the Aichi Biodiversity Targets.[4] A Sustainable Development Goal focused on the water-energy-food nexus would draw attention to these critical issues. The nexus could be achieved by doubling global consumption of renewable energy; implementing multi-sector water management plans; reducing waste in the food, energy, and water sectors; and extending the Aichi biodiversity targets to 2030.


Water, energy, and food are fundamental to human survival and access to these resources is essential for eradicating poverty. Worldwide, 1.3 billion people are energy poor, meaning they lack safe and consistent access to modern energy fuels.[5] In addition, 700 million people are water insecure, lacking clean, reliable water supplies and 840 million people lack consistent and sufficient access to nutritious food.[6] Those who are water, energy, or food insecure often must dedicate their days to retrieving water from wells, collecting firewood, or harvesting crops. Women and children are usually responsible for these duties, which often preclude them from engaging in education or other income-generating activities. Water that is collected from wells is often contaminated and not safe for cooking or drinking.[7] Energy generated by burning fallen trees emits black carbon particulates that trigger chronic health problems.[8] Gathered food is of poor nutritional quality or contaminated with bacteria, and can also trigger chronic health problems.[9] Thus, sustainable development and poverty eradication can only be achieved by addressing water, energy, and food insecurity.

Rapid increases in economic and population growth have stressed global freshwater supplies, reduced the quality of land available for agriculture, and destroyed the ecosystems that naturally replenish these resources.[10] Water has been consumed and mismanaged for decades, and several cities and nations, including Jordan, Syria, and Sao Paulo (Brazil’s most populated city), are at risk of running out of water. Climate change, itself a result of human activities such as deforestation and fossil fuel combustion, will increase sea levels, ruin arable land, exacerbate the intensity and frequency of droughts, and reduce the fresh water available for food production and conventional energy generation.[11] The current combination of resource overconsumption and climate-driven stresses to global food and water supply is unsustainable but can be addressed by drawing attention to the water, energy, and food nexus.

Water, energy, and food are linked at every stage of production and consumption.[12] Modern methods of collecting, treating, and distributing water are energy-intensive. The ecosystems that are essential for capturing and replenishing fresh water supplies have been destroyed to increase agricultural productivity, provide fuel for energy production, or support other economic growth. Conventional energy such as coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear power produce over 90 percent of the global energy consumed, but they are water-dependent, accounting for 15 percent of global freshwater withdrawals.[13] Renewable energy sources, such as biofuels, compete with food production for increasingly scarce arable land and clean water. Agricultural production accounts for 70 percent of global freshwater withdrawals, and food cannot be preserved or distributed without energy.[14] Water, energy, and food are inextricably linked in their production, distribution, and consumption stages and thus are essential for achieving sustainable economic growth. As these resources become increasingly scarce, it is imperative that immediate and ambitious actions are taken to prioritize and manage the water-energy-food nexus.


The UN SDGs are the most visible mechanism for raising awareness, focusing global resources, and promoting integration on actions that will reduce global poverty. Traditionally, water, energy, and food have been managed as distinct resources, but this approach has contributed to the growing scarcity of these key resources. Taking a nexus approach would focus on the synergies between water, energy, and food to reduce global demand for these vital resources. The water-energy-food nexus is central to achieving sustainable development, but can only be addressed through integrated, focused, and ambitious efforts. Thus, the water-energy-food nexus should be established as a sustainable development goal for three reasons. First, doing so will raise awareness about its critical importance. Second, it will force stakeholders from government, business, and civil society to develop integrated resource plans that resolve the systemic tensions between water, energy, and food. Third, setting an integrated goal like this will motivate water, energy, and agricultural sectors to collaborate and establish equitable and appropriate solutions to ease, not exacerbate, domestic demand for these essential resources. The steps required to address the water-energy-food nexus would also support efforts on climate change adaptation and mitigation.  The sustainable development goals, spanning from 2015 to 2030, will coincide with the UN-led, global effort to respond to climate change. A sustainable development goal regarding the interplay between water-energy-food will also help to catalyze additional action on climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Goal and Targets

The sustainable development goal should focus on the water-energy-food nexus by addressing the linkages between water, energy, and food systems. A nexus approach identifies the linkages between these resources as opportunities to increase efficiency and reduce consumption. Such an approach boosts the security and stability of global water, energy, and food supplies.

  1. Double global consumption of low-carbon, water-smart renewable energy[15]

Worldwide, 1.3 billion people experience energy poverty, and addressing this is essential for alleviating economic poverty. As discussed above, conventional energy sources account for 15 percent of global freshwater withdrawals. Shale gas is very water intensive, and biofuels are land and water intensive. Water consumption by the energy sector can be reduced and energy poverty can be addressed by deploying low-carbon, water-smart renewable energy.

Low-carbon, water-smart renewable energy sources include wind power, solar photovoltaic (PV) generation, and run-of-river energy production. These require neither continued inputs of extra water nor extensive deforestation. Ideal locations for wind farms do not conflict with the land required for agricultural production. Solar PV panels can be placed on existing infrastructure, such as rooftops, landfills, and highways. Small-hydro “run-of-river” projects generate clean, consistent energy and are ideal for towns near streams or rivers. Wind, solar, and small-hydro power can reduce energy poverty by providing energy to off-grid areas while reducing water consumed by the energy sector.

  1. Implement integrated water resource management plans that ensure secure access to freshwater supplies and stable rates of water consumption

Water is the single most important resource for reducing poverty, and all human activities depend on the earth’s natural systems to provide and replenish freshwater supplies. In many countries, people have treated these natural supplies of water as unlimited and, as a result, freshwater has been over-consumed in the energy and agricultural sectors. Overconsumption and climate change are increasing the risk of global water scarcity, but few governments have plans to address this issue. A target on sustainable, integrated water resource management plans would motivate governments to examine domestic water availability and consumption, to identify opportunities to increase water efficiency, to protect and rehabilitate water-capturing ecosystems, and to use non-freshwater where possible.

  1. Improve water efficiency in agriculture by 25 percent, double rates of global energy efficiency, and reduce global food waste by 50 percent[16]

Global agricultural production accounts for 70 percent of all freshwater withdrawals and 85 percent of freshwater consumption. Recent droughts in California, China, Russia, and Syria have strained global food supplies and triggered massive political unrest. This ratio is untenable and it is vital that agriculture becomes more water efficient.

Investing in energy efficiency reduces the water consumed in energy production, lowers greenhouse gas emissions, and bolsters economic growth. Energy efficient technologies exist, and deploying these technologies at scale would ease tensions on food and water systems.

Roughly 40 percent of all food produced is wasted, but global demand for food is expected to increase nearly 60 percent by 2050. As water becomes increasingly scarce, but demand for food grows, wasting food will only exacerbate the tensions between water and food. Significantly reducing global food waste is essential for reaching the water-energy-food nexus.

  1. Extend the Aichi Biodiversity Targets to 2030

Global poverty cannot be addressed unless countries have continual access to freshwater and arable land. The earth’s natural environment is a complex system that provides the freshwater and arable land that support human life. Protecting forests, plains, and fresh waterways helps replenish aquifers and nourish farmland. Investing in and protecting ecosystems helps ensure stable supplies of freshwater and agriculturally productive land. The Aichi Biodiversity Targets are already playing an important role in driving investment into protecting and rehabilitating ecosystems. Healthy ecosystems are vital to addressing the water-energy-food nexus, and so the Aichi Biodiversity Targets should be incorporated into this sustainable development goal and extended to 2030.

 Caitlin Smith  is an MA candidate at the Johns Hopkins Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.



[1] “Background: UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs),” United Nations Millennium Development Goals, accessed January 20, 2015,

[2] “Open Working Group proposal for Sustainable Development Goals,” Open Working Group of the General Assembly on Sustainable Development Goals, accessed January 20, 2015,

[3] Holger Hoff, “Understanding the Nexus. Background Paper for the Bonn2011 Conference: The Water, Energy and Food Security Nexus,” Stockholm Environment Institute, accessed January 20, 2015,

[4] “Key Elements of the Strategic Plan 2011­–2020, including the Aichi Biodiversity Targets,” Convention on Biological Diversity, accessed January 20, 2015,

[5] “Energy Poverty,” International Energy Agency, accessed January 20, 2015,

[6] “Water for Life Decade: Water Scarcity,” United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, accessed January 20, 2015, “The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2013: Key messages,” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, accessed January 20, 2015,

[7] “Water for Life Decade.”

[8] “Energy Poverty.”

[9] “The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2013.”

[10] Stewart Patrick, “Not a Drop to Drink: The Global Water Crisis,” The Council on Foreign Relations, accessed January 20, 2015,

[11] Patrick, “Not a Drop to Drink.”

[12] “Understanding the Nexus.”

[13] “Water for Energy: Is energy becoming a thirstier resource,” International Energy Agency, 1, accessed January 20, 2015,

[14] “Water for Energy,” 1.

[15] Molly Elgin-Cossart, Cathleen Kelly, and Abigail Jones, “Reducing Poverty through Climate Action: A Strategy for Global Development Leaders,” 10, Center for American Progress, May 2014, accessed January 20, 2015

[16] Elgin-Cossart, “Reducing Poverty through Climate Action,” 10-12.

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