The Energy, Water and Food nexus can be conceptualised as the ‘perfect storm’. Increased energy demand by 50% by 2030; increased food demand by 50% by 2030; and increased water demand by 30% by 2030. There is competition between them but also convergence. How we deal with the three are among the most pressing challenges.
For farmers, it can be much more profitable to sell water rights than to farm. Two farmers in San Joaquin Valley, California planned in 2010 to sell the right to draw up to 57,343 acre-feet of water per year from the California State Water Project. Under this sale, the farmers would be paid a total of $11.7 million dollars, as they sell the water at a price of $5,850 per acre-foot[i]. The use of water can be for energy production, municipal or industrial water.
Eagle Ford in Texas is one of the fastest-growing shale oil and gas plays in the United States. It is also in one of the driest parts of the country. Following a severe drought in 2011, concerns are mounting that oil and gas extraction is competing with irrigation for scarce water supplies. Drilling and fracturing rock formations to release oil and gas uses enormous quantities of water: 4 to 5 million gallons of water for every well in the Eagle Ford, according to most estimates. The economic return for using groundwater for fracking is enormous. If oil prices remain around $80-90 per barrel, the gross revenue from a single well could be $24 million-32 million or more. The returns on using groundwater for oil extraction easily outstrip those for agriculture. If the groundwater owner can claim royalties on output from oil and gas wells, using groundwater to frack wells could yield more than 2,000 times compared to using the same amount of water to grow corn[ii].
This competition for water is not only for oil and gas extraction in the energy sector. Large scale concentrated solar power fields are often located in dry areas and needs huge quantities of water for cooling. In 2011, China had to make the tough choice between using water in the Three Gorges Dam for irrigation of food crops or for energy. The Three Gorges Dam discharged enough water to fill 2 million Olympic-sized swimming pools by June 10, according to a government statement. Lower water levels on the 6,264-kilometer (3,915-mile) river may increased China’s oil demand by 300,000 barrels a day to make up for lost hydropower generation[iii].
In United States, 143 billion gallons of freshwater is used daily for cooling power plants – more than any other freshwater use, even more than for irrigation[iv]. At the same time irrigation itself consumes a lot of electricity as in India. Moving and treating the water of California takes almost 20 percent of the electricity of the stat’s electricity[v].
“We just want to get enough money to get the bank off our back,” Mark Shannon a farmer in California’s Joaquin valley told the New York Times in 2010. “We would love to stay here because this is some of the best dirt in the world. But I can’t farm myself out of this water problem.” he says as he has to let his land be converted into a solar power field[vi]. This is a very vivid illustration of that shortage of resources will be a permanent feature in the future, and how land, water and energy interplay. And it also shows that when a resource is used for one purpose it is withdrawn from some other place, something that is self-evident for everybody except a special breed of humans that have total faith in the market and technology to solve all problems and that there are no limits in resources.
In a "free" market economy a choice like this is simple. Has the potential energy in the water a higher market price than the food that is produced; we'll use it for energy production and let people starve.
Turning water into wine - ooops, sorry, I meant dollars...
How wet is your cucumber?
[iv] Food, water and Energy, Know the Nexus, Grace Communications 2013
[v] Food, water and Energy, Know the Nexus, Grace Communications 2013