Quantifying connections

Quantifying connections

By Leslie Lee

In 2009, the Arab Gulf nation of Qatar, which imports more than 90 percent of its food, set out to improve its food security and established the Qatar National Food Security Program. Its government turned to a relatively new kind of analysis to test the feasibility of its goal: the water, energy, food (WEF) nexus.

“We know that the three resources — water, energy and food — form a nexus with quantifiable interconnections,” said Dr. Rabi H. Mohtar, a Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station endowed professor in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at Texas A&M University.

Mohtar and his research team used a nexus approach to analyze the nation’s resources, quantify how those resources interact and help inform the government’s next steps.

“We looked at the footprint of moving from the current baseline of 10 percent food production, into 20 or 30 percent,” said Mohtar, who was serving as founding director of Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute at the time. “What would be the water and energy footprint of that increased food production?

“In this case, energy wasn’t a problem for Qatar, and water wasn’t a problem because of desalination. We found that the limiting factor was the land footprint. Qatar didn’t have the arable land needed to increase food production.”

Nexus tool translates theory into analysis

Through studies such as the Qatar food security analysis, Mohtar has helped move the WEF nexus from idea to quantification.

“Policymakers will tell you, ‘This is a neat concept, but what do I do with it?’” he said.

Mohtar’s answer is the WEF Nexus Tool 2.0, a scenario-based computer modeling tool that can analyze nexus interactions for regions or small countries, applying the nexus theories and quantifications to real-world problems. Planners and analysts in water, energy and food, in both the public and private sectors, can benefit from using the tool, he said.

The tool requires three inputs for the region being analyzed, Mohtar said: a food portfolio, including local food production levels, food imports and agricultural production technologies; a water portfolio with data on water sources and supplies; and an energy portfolio, identifying energy sources for both water and agricultural production.

Mohtar said the tool enables users to identify a sustainable scenario in which the region could increase security of energy, food or water, without infringing on the others, and it also helps find the “bottlenecks” and challenges preventing higher production.

The challenges facing Texas’ own water, energy and food resources are one of the main reasons Mohtar came to Texas A&M in January 2014, he said. His team is currently using the tool to analyze WEF nexus linkages in the hydraulic fracturing industry in Texas, quantifying both its benefits and side effects.

“Hydraulic fracturing has implications on energy security but also on water security.”

The tool’s purpose is not to tell policymakers what decisions to make, Mohtar said, but to quantify how each resource-related decision will potentially impact other resources. He believes in a holistic approach.

We need to be using these relevant tools to quantify impacts, so that when we move to secure one of these vital resources, we don’t infringe on the others.

Dr. Rabi H. Mohtar

“We’re not saying, ‘You should do this or you should do that,’” he said. “What we’re looking at is, if this is business as usual, if this scenario is the track you’re moving forward in for securing water, energy or food, how does it impact the other resources?”

Mohtar said that his team’s WEF nexus tool was among the first of its kind, but there are similar tools available, and analysts should choose the best one for their situation.

“I’m not saying ‘This one tool is going to solve everyone’s problems,’” he said.

Instead, he wants to promote the importance of “trade-off” analyses, in which resource-related decisions undergo preliminary scrutiny to quantify all potential effects on other resources.

“We need to be using these relevant tools to quantify impacts, so that when we move to secure one of these vital resources, we don’t infringe on the others.”

Analyzing Texas’ water gap

According to the 2012 state water plan’s projections, if the state does nothing in the meantime, Texas will be short 8.3 million acre-feet of water by 2060.

“So, how can you bridge that gap using different technologies, practices or policies, using different strategies that do not infringe on water or food?” Mohtar said.

In Spring 2014, Mohtar taught a WEF nexus graduate course that brought together students from all over the university, including students in political science, engineering and agriculture. The class focused on answering the question: How can Texas’ water gap be bridged?

The students examined specific regulations, water pricing structures, conservation strategies, desalination technologies, groundwater management and wastewater reuse.

“Desalination does have an energy footprint and environmental implications,” he said. “But, we cannot dismiss it in the future water portfolio for the state. I think that desalination is one of the strategies we need, as well as conservation, policies, ground- water management and recharge.”

Bringing the nexus to Texas and the world

On a regular basis, Mohtar and his research team present the nexus tool to policymakers and researchers at meetings and conferences around the United States and world.

“We have a very active research group,” he said. The team includes graduate and post-doctoral students in engineering, physics, political science and other disciplines.

Among various other global leadership roles, Mohtar served on the World Economic Forum’s Climate Change Agenda Council from 2011 to 2014, the Board of Governors of the World Water Council since 2012 and the advisory board of the United Nation’s Framework Convention on Climate Change – Momentum for Change Initiative since 2012.

Things are connected. Our food security is not independent from our water and energy security and visa-versa.

Dr. Rabi H. Mohtar

In Texas, Mohtar’s team is also working to educate the public and scientists about the WEF nexus and why it matters.

“Things are connected,” he said. “Our food security is not independent from our water and energy security and visa-versa.”

“The challenges in Texas are the same challenges faced in many other parts of the world. If we can solve them here and take leadership in terms of developing and using these tools successfully, then I think Texas can have a global impact in these areas.”