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Ripples from the water-energy-food nexus

In Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity, Timothy Mitchell tells how in 1942, an epidemic of gambiae malaria in Egypt was caused by a perfect storm of interactions between rivers, dams, fertilisers, food webs, and the influences of the Second World War. It began with the building of dams and storage reservoirs at Aswan by the Nile, which provided the anopheles mosquito with new breeding spots.

Thanks to the dams, basin irrigation was replaced by perennial irrigation, encouraging a denser population of humans who no longer needed to disperse to avoid flooding. Government protectionism on behalf of the sugarcane industry then helped it expand at the expense of food-growing lands, while new irrigation techniques led to reduced soil fertility. When ammonia was diverted from fertilizer to explosives manufacturing for the Second World War, the resulting malnourishment and closely populated settlements created an easy target for this particularly social mosquito.

Splitting technological, agricultural, epidemiological, and geopolitical considerations into separate boxes led at least in part to the epidemic. The engineers building the dam could never have imagined the ripple effects their work created. But today, we know better (well, somewhat at least: it’s worth noting that deforestation has been strongly linked to the Ebola epidemic). And, with studies estimating that the global demand for water, energy, and food will increase by 55%, 80%, and 60% respectively by 2050, those ripple effects are going to be all the more critical–especially between these three areas .

Risks in one sector often correlate with risks in the others–but equally often, decreasing the risk in one sector causes it to increase dramatically in others. Figuring out how to provide enough water for wheat farming, hydropower generation, and maintaining local ecosystems, while still decreasing carbon emissions, is not an easy task.

The world is facing unprecedented stresses, and we are going to need an unprecedented response. We’re doing our best to help create that response at the OECD; in November 2014 we hosted the Global Forum on Environment: New Perspectives on the Water-Energy-Food Nexus, which focused on how the interactions, synergies and trade-offs between these resources can be managed in real policy terms. Stakeholders involved in these two days of discussions with experts and government officials are expected to be increasingly important in moving from analysis to implementation in the years ahead.

In the meantime, it is worth remembering that the malaria epidemic was often framed as one of intelligence versus nature. But intelligence and technological advancement were not created through externally imposed "solutions". Rather, they were developed iteratively by engaging and interacting with the challenges. We have no doubt that the same will be true here.

Updated and adapted from www.oecdinsights.org, March 2015

©OECD Observer No 302 April 2015

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