Focus on the food-water-energy nexus promotes smarter environmental policies

Who will benefit from investments in Africa’s underused arable land resources?

Experts agree that Africa has the capacity to feed itself and become a major exporter of food globally on the basis of coherent and integrated policies that incorporate the impacts of the food-water-energy nexus. Enormous foreign investments are being made in agro-industries in Africa yet few benefits seem to have percolated across those populations living on less that $2 a day. While transparency and a weak regulatory environment are key challenges, without strategic choices and policies dealing with the links among food, water, and energy, this may end up being another tragic case of resource exploitation that undermines the aspirations of the African people.

Projected population and urbanization growth rates for the next 20 years and increased per capita consumption due to the expanding middle classes throughout Africa are already dramatically affecting the continent. This in turn will impact global food, water, and energy resources. Many of the limitations on solutions derive from the reality that natural resources are finite. Yet others, including pollution, overuse/abuse of water supplies, poor agricultural practices, massive subsidies for inefficient industries, and similar constraints are driven by uneven and short-sighted priorities that seek short term benefits without attention to medium and longer term impacts.

Africa is particularly key to the global discussion of the food-water-energy nexus for at least three reasons: trends in population and economic growth that demand greater efficiencies from the continent’s ecosystem; its position as a major geographic and geo-economic hub with its long coastlines, abundant aquatic life, burgeoning hydrocarbon profile, and underutilized arable land; and its vulnerabilities ranging from security threats to exploitation by domestic and international actors that impede its capacity to maximize its options.

Framing the discussion to move towards solutions

In his testimony before Congress in January 2014, James Clapper, US Director of National Intelligence remarked that “competition for and secure access to national resources (e.g. food, water, and energy) are growing security threats…Many countries important to the United States are vulnerable to natural-resource shocks…Demographic trends, especially increasing global population and urbanization, will also aggravate the outlook for resources, putting intense pressure on food, water, and energy.” The US is not alone in this concern. Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia are particularly vulnerable to shifts in the security and stability of Africa. One only has to look at the piracy issue – diminishing along coast of East Africa, now a growing threat in the Gulf of Guinea and beyond.

Sub-national conflicts, such as the Western Sahara stalemate between Morocco and the Algeria-backed Polisario Front, are increasingly focused on resources as sovereignty issues become more about exploitation and distribution than identity. Northern Mali, the Niger Delta, Somalia, Ethiopia/Eritrea, and the Congo are long-simmering and often violent explosions driven to a significant degree by resource control issues. Yet no matter which party dominates, the more essential and basic concerns with food, water, and energy are still core challenges to the continent’s economic and human development.

As global demand begins to outstrip productivity gains, it is even more imperative that Africa, with its huge underutilized resources, becomes a stronger advocate and manager of its natural resources. There is no better starting place than policies and programs that integrate the food-water-energy nexus into infrastructure, sectoral, and security planning. From the potential for conflict over the impact of changing the Nile River’s (or any shared water source) upstream configuration, to migration resulting from climate change and overuse of water or degradation of arable land, to the clear link between volatility in food prices and stability, the indicators for increased conflict over resources is clear.

This scenario, with all its complexities and nuances, makes it imperative to build multilateral frameworks in concert with Africa to address the fool-water-energy nexus. The key begins with acknowledging that every delay robs Africans of another day to engage stakeholders from rural farmers to city-dwellers, from the public and private sectors, and international NGOs and foreign and technical assistance programs to build the local and regional solution options.

Slideshow photo: Green Prophet1/Flickr.