The Role of Governance in Managing Water, Energy and Food Resources in the European Union and Beyond

Water, energy and food nexus (WEF) | Source: United Nations University – FLORES

Author: Lisa Drake

Water is the catalyst behind our society. Humans need water to survive as 60% of the human body is composed of water. It is necessary to perform physical and cognitive functions like respiration, sweating and even concentration (USGS,  no date) (CDC, 2020). Water is a necessity in human everyday life to prevent dehydration and stay alive. EU guidelines recommend drinking between 1.5 and 2 litres of water per day, depending on age, sex and other health factors (European Comission, 2020). Water is a critical to human health and longevity, but it is also finite resource needed for more than just thirst or basic survival. It is needed for other basic activities like maintaining hygiene, sanitation and even cooking. It is an essential component in empowering the other essential resources to human life: food and energy (Pahl-Wostl, Bhaduri and Bruns, 2018).

Like water, food is needed for energy, nutrition and health. The agricultural sector is responsible for 69% of water withdrawals worldwide, on an annual basis (FAO, 2021). Water is needed in massive quantities to produce food as it can take 3000-5000 litres of water to produce 1kg of rice, 2,000 litres for 1kg of soya, and 900 litres for 1kg of wheat, and the list goes on including an even much larger scale water usage to produce animal products (WWF, 2006).

Water continues to be a source of power behind the energy that powers modern life on a daily basis. Energy is essential for light, heating, cooking, transportation, technology and even the internet (Zohuri and Zohuri, 2016). Fossil-fuel and biofuel production as well as fracking, the process of shale gas extraction, requires large quantities of water (UN-Water, 2014). An estimated 75% of all industrial water supplies are used for energy production, and 90% of energy production worldwide energy production needs a large, consistent water supply (FAO, 2011) (UN-Water, 2014).


Water, energy and food nexus (WEF)

Due to this connection between all three critical resources, the water, energy and food nexus (WEF) was created and introduced at the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development conference in 2012 (Dodds & Bartram, 2016). It became a political explanation to describe the relationship between the physical connection and processes related to these three resources. It was also an introduction to the need for a systems thinking approach to the management of these resources across multiple sectors (WRI, no date).

It also became evident that these resources were related economically as well. The cost of food increased as the cost of energy also increased, since food production requires energy for transportation between 1990 and 1999. At the same time, the World Bank global food price index increased 104.5% at an average rate of 6.5% (Dodds & Bartram, 2016). Dramatic price increases lead to a greater division between high and low-income countries, and disparities between access to our natural resources (Dodds & Bartram, 2016).

The nexus is not a policy at its core, but it provides a guideline toward how to think about current and future policies and practices related to water, energy and food as well as their environmental implications. It is also a useful tool toward thinking about how to strive toward UN Sustainable Development goals; for example, the current UN Sustainable Development Goals calling for clean water and sanitation, zero hunger, good health and wellbeing, as well as climate action play a vital role in the WEF nexus, and are crucial to address to progress into a more sustainable, healthy society worldwide (UN, no date).

As the human population increases as the years go by, there becomes greater demand for all three of these essential resources: water, energy and food. By 2050, it is estimated that the global population will reach approximately 9.7 billion people who will need access to these resources in their daily lives. Already, in the present day, many of the world struggles to meet their daily needs for water and food on an individual and societal level which has recently been worsened by the recent COVID-19 pandemic sources (World Resources Institute, no date). One in three people worldwide don’t have access to safe drinking water and one in five people lack access to basic facilities for handwashing which is essential to mitigating the spread of COVID-19 (UN, no date).

Approximately 690 million people, 8.9% of the global population, suffer from hunger because of lack of access to enough quality food sources for adequate nutrition  (UN, no date). This accounted for an increase of 10 million people within one year, and it was estimated that the COVID-19 pandemic may put at least an additional 130 million people at risk of going hungry (UN, no date). Agricultural production will likely need to increase by 50% by the year 2050, due to the expected population increase, compared to production in 2012 (Mekonnen & Gerbens-Leenes, 2020). By 2035, it is estimated that energy production globally is expected to grow by 50%. Also, 60% more food will ned to be produced to feed the global population  and water resources taken for irrigation will increase by 10% by 2050 when compared to 2014 (FAO, 2014). It is obvious that water, food and energy are all inter-related and necessary for the maintenance, growth and thriving of human life and society. How can we allocate global water resources to support a growing population worldwide? The allocation of resources requires good governance, health policy, and an effort among all of us to mitigate our environmental footprints.


Water as an essential component

Since water is a finite resource and the essential component to food and energy production, as well as a resource behind many of our daily activities, we need to focus on preserving water. Since the agricultural sector is the largest consumer of water, sustainable practises in agriculture and a global shift toward sustainable, healthy diets could be a practical solution toward preserving water and planetary health both now and in the future (EAT-Lancet Commission, no date). Food systems are not only responsible for the depletion of water resources, but they also produce 20-35% of all greenhouse gas emissions and are a major cause of land conversion, deforestation, and loss of biodiversity (FAO & WHO, 2019). Also, only 55% of calories produced in agriculture are available for direct human consumption, while the rest is used for animal feed, other industrial uses, or bioenergy (Mekonnen & Gerbens-Leenes, 2020).

At the same time, unhealthy diets that are high in animal products, including meat and dairy, as well as highly processed foods and beverages, were the second highest leading global risk factor for death and disability adjusted life years (DALYs) in 2016, while contributing to 11 million deaths and 255 million DALYs worldwide in 2017 (FAO & WHO, 2019). Both the FAO and WHO recommend a global shift toward sustainable, healthy diets that will both contribute to progressing toward the UN sustainable development goals, keep people healthier, and mitigate the environmental impact of food production. The recommended sustainable, healthy diet is one that is based on whole foods or minimally processed foods, is balanced among food groups, and is low in processed food and beverages (FAO & WHO, 2019). It should also be free of pathogens, toxins or disease-causing materials while remaining consistent with WHO guidelines to reduce the risk of diet-related non-communicable diseases. Overall, this type of diet should promote human health and wellbeing while mitigating its environmental impact, and be accessable, affordable, safe, equitable and culturally acceptable (FAO & WHO, 2019).

In terms of actual foods that we should eat and governments should promote in their dietary guidelines, it is necessary to lean towards foods that have a lower water footprint and environmental impact, and the impact of the production of animal products tends to use signficantly more of these resources than the production of most plant-based products of the same amount of nutritional value (Mekonnen & Gerbens-Leenes, 2020). For example, the water impact used to produce beef is twenty times larger than it is to produce cereals and starchy root vegetables (Mekonnen & Gerbens-Leenes, 2020). Therefore, a solution to reduce the current water usage in agriculture is to replace meat with mainly plant-based products of similar nutritional value such as replacing beef with pulses which if done across the majority of the population is estimated to reduce water usage by 38% in developed countries and 15% in developing countries (Mekonnen & Gerbens-Leenes, 2020). This is also echoed in accordance by the FAO and WHO in their guidelines for sustainable and healthy diets as they recommend consuming mainly wholegrains, legumes, nuts, fruits and vegetables while minimising the amount of eggs, dairy, poultry, fish and red meat consumed, if any (FAO & WHO, 2019).The essential question remains as to how to encourage people, worldwide of different habits and cultural practises, to eat a more whole foods, plant-based diet.


Guidelines for governance

Ideally, governments, policymakers, and public health officials and organisations promote a more whole foods, plant-based diet to the public by making every effort to make these foods more available, accessible and affordable (EAT-Lancet Commission, no date). Within this, food marketing needs to be regulated, nutritional education must be improved, and governmental dietary guidelines should be updated to reflect a whole foods, plant-based, healthy environmentally sustainable diet (EAT-Lancet Commission, no date). In addition to diet alone, it would be effective to limit the water lost due to food waste since its estimated that food waste accounts for 12-15% of the global water footprint (Mekonnen & Gerbens-Leenes, 2020).

The Eat-Lancet Commission recommends cutting food waste in half, which would make progress toward UN Sustainable Development Goal 12, calling for responsible consumption and production of goods and services (EAT-Lancet Commission, no date) (UN, no date). By limiting the amount of food waste both in food production, supply, transport and on an individual level, it allows more water to be conserved for other uses, and more food to be consumed by those who need it. Additionally, the agricultural sector in itself should be regulated and subsidised to produce enough calories for human consumption alongside a diversity of healthy, nutritious foods (EAT-Lancet Commission, no date). It is also useful to have more coordinated governance of both land and oceans, so that they can be used sustainably to produce food without encroaching onto new land, promote biodiversity, restoring already degraded land, and ensure sustainability of the oceans (EAT-Lancet Commission, no date).

Most importantly, to best mitigate our water and environmental impact, sustainable agricultural practises are necessary to implement throughout the industry. The EAT-Lancet Commission recommends at least a 75% reduction of yield gaps on cropland, redistributing the use of nitrogen and phosphorus worldwide, and implementing further climate mitigation options within the system (EAT-Lancet Commission, no date). A combination between sustainable agriculture, dietary changes, and considering our societal and personal consumption of water, energy and food as well as the waste associated with them should help to conserve our environmental resources, allocate them equitably among the growing population, and live healthier, longer lives now and in the future.

An essential question is to how these ideas can be applied into current policies in the EU and beyond. Europe is the largest importer of natural resources, and ensuring responsible, affordable access to them both in the present and the future should be an essential focus (Venghaus and Hake, 2017). The Europe 2020 Strategy and the now updated Europe 2030 Strategy sets objectives for efficiency in natural resources and sets targets for sustainable development (European Commission, 2019). The new Europe 2030 strategy outlines the need to work toward sustainable development goals and sets recommendations for many policies, including those related to water, energy and food in accordance with recommendations by the EAT-Lancet Commission, FAO and WHO (European Commission, 2019).

There have been difficulties in addressing water, energy and food policies together, because typically investments are made in each sector independent of the others, but integrating them is not a new idea (Selin and VanDeveer, 2015). In 1993, the Maastricht Treaty, environmental policy integration (EPI) was introduced to integrate environmental policies into all policies (Venghaus and Hake, 2017).Now, the Europe 2030 Strategy recommends policy coherence between sectors to address the sustainable development goals while also ensuring long term sustainable growth and development (European Commission, 2019). It addresses updates to Common Agricultural Policy from 2021 to 2027 to obligate farmers to take up more sustainable agricultural practises including a nutrient management tool to improve water quality, and its goal of using at least 32% of its energy from renewable sources and 32.5% energy efficiency by 2030 which is in line with sustainable agricultural practises (European Commission, 2019).


Circular economy

The Europe 2030 Strategy also recommends the adaptation of a circular economy to conserve natural resources. A circular economy promotes the reuse of all resources and materials, discourages waste, and ensures the maximum value of all resources, materials and products which promotes the environmental sustainability that is necessary for natural resource conservation at this point in time (European Commission, 2019).

There is scientific support for a circular economy in making the most of our natural resources and allocating them in the most responsible manners as it promotes the reduction of waste and extracting all possible by-products from important resources which can reduce energy consumption, carbon dioxide emissions, and minimising the stress on the water, energy and food systems (Borghi et al., 2019). Not only can the circular economy work well to manage supplies of water, energy, food supplies, but it is also thought to be a positive step for the European economy (Borghi et al., 2019).

Its estimated that the adoption of a more circular economy can create a net economic benefit of approximately 1.8 trillion euros and create at least one million new jobs in EU countries by 2030 by creating new business opportunities, saving material costs, decreasing price volatility, improving the security of essential supplies and reduce industrial environmental impacts and demand for natural resources (European Commission, 2019). More research needs to be done on the impacts of a circular economy and further policy recommendations in line with the circular economy need to be addressed, but it is a promising outlook for the future and a step toward integrating water, food, and energy policies together within broader EU policies.

Water is an essential natural resource, especially in the context of the water, energy and food nexus concept, that needs to be acknowledged on a national and international level to achieve security in terms of its supply for all people, governments and societies. World Water Day is on 22nd March 2021, to bring awareness of the importance of water and all our uses for it, review policies related to water, and think about our own personal consumption of water and our own environmental footprints (UN Water, 2021). Water is the vital force behind our society, economy, health and survival, yet continues to pose a challenge for many people worldwide to access clean and safe water and sanitation resources (UN Water, 2021). Now, in 2021, in the COVID-19 pandemic where these resources have become of even greater importance to mitigating its spread, it is an even more essential question than ever before.

The transition to circular economy in the EU poses a promising beginning to the solution of providing better, more integrated policies to managing water, energy and food sources; however, more work needs to be done to promote further cohesion between these sectors and toward promotion of a circular economy at a global level. There is also a question of how policies in line with the circular economy can be used toward the promotion of sustainable development in the developing world, where many people continue to feel the strain of limited water, energy and food sources (World Resources Institute, no date).



Unfortunately, there are many worldwide challenges, limitations, and conflicts of interest with the processed food and animal agriculture industries in implementing a circular economy and promoting sustainable, healthy, whole foods plant-based diets worldwide. Also, further cohesion and cooperation on an international scale between countries is necessary to achieve better sustainable development and conserve natural resources that we all rely upon. After all, our countries are divided, but water is shared among them all.

Reliable access to water, energy and food sources is crucial to both human health and global political and economic stability both now and in the future. The key to ensuring cohesion and efficiency between our resources is good governance and policy making with a long-term outlook and the time to take action is now. In addition to governmental policies and decision-making outside of the water, food and energy industries, all of us can consider our own impact on the environment.

We should each take time to consider our own usage of water and evaluate our own diets, and try to make the changes we can make, to strive toward a sustainable, healthy, diet rich in non or minimally processed plant-based foods and limit or eliminate our consumption of animal products. We can also individually do our part in creating less food and water waste such as by buying locally sourced products. If everyone can make a small effort to do our part, it can make all the difference for our health, our environment, our natural resources, and ensuring a sustainable future for the next generations.


Author: Lisa Drake, was a student of the EuroPubHealth Programme

at the Institute of Public Health, Jagiellonian University Medical College.

The text was supervised by Beata Piórecka, PhD

Public Health Blog | Blog Zdrowia Publicznego, ed. M. Zabdyr-Jamróz, Institute of Public Health JU MC, Kraków: 19 May 2021


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