15 May 2014

Water-Energy Nexus Panel Discussion at the African Utility Week

On 13 - 14 May 2014 the African Utility Week (AUW) took place in Cape Town, South Africa, where Africa’s present and future water and energy challenges have been discussed. Dr. Paul T. Yillia, research scholar with IIASA’s flagship research programme, “Global Water Futures and Solutions” and consultant for the UN Secretary General’s Initiative on Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) organised and led a panel on the water-energy-food nexus at the Conference.

Dr. Yillia presents a report with very interesting results.

Report of the Nexus Panel Discussion at the 2014 African Utility Week


On 13 May 2014, a panel discussion on the nexus was convened at a special session on water at the Africa Utility Week/Clean Power Africa conference and exhibition to discuss the water-energy-food nexus in relation to Africa’s growth and development agenda. IIASA Research Scholar, Dr. Paul T. Yillia who consults on the nexus for the Vienna based UN initiative on Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All) opened the panel discussion by telling the audience that Africa is growing rapidly. He said, “according to World Bank estimates, Africa’s economic growth rates have averaged around 5.2% per annum in recent years, making the continent one of the fastest growing regions in the world. He added that “coupled with high population growth, urbanization and changing lifestyles, the demand for natural resources, especially water, energy and food continues to increase rapidly on the continent with no signs that both growth and demand will slow down any time soon”. According to Dr. Yillia, the challenges are huge in Africa because “most of the nearly 1 billion people globally who do not have access to clean drinking water, or the 2.5 billion people who do not have access to adequate sanitation, and the 1 billion who lack adequate access to food live in Africa. It is also the continent with the least capacity to deal with these challenges. The nexus, he said, provides an opportunity to manage the continent’s resources more efficiently to address many of the development challenges plaguing it.


It emerged from the panel discussion that the strong focus on rapid economic growth and the growing need to provide energy, water and food for a rapidly growing population on the continent is threaten ecological and social systems. For instance, there are obvious environmental and social consequences as energy companies abstract more and more water for cooling thermoelectric power plants and explore hydropower options across Africa to meet growing energy demands. Correspondingly, as populations grow and urban centers expand, water utilities are exploiting additional water sources to increase supply, which in turn is increasing demand for energy, an expensive resource that is in short supply in many parts of Africa. In addition, short supplies in both energy and water are having direct implications on food production systems, which also have direct and indirect impacts on water and energy systems.


To address these challenges, the panel presented the nexus perspective as a useful policy and management instrument for delivering realistic and lasting solutions on the continent to address water, energy and food security. The panelists described novel and thought-provoking initiatives in Africa that have a significant nexus character built in them, e.g. diversifying water sources to include rainwater harvesting to minimize energy requirement for long distance transport and distribution; harvesting energy from wastewater to produce biogas for domestic use, thereby reducing dependence on biomass and other unsustainable forms traditional cooking; intensifying research and development on desalination technology to reduce its energy intensity and operational costs; exploring alternative energy sources, in particular renewable energy such as solar energy and biogas from wastewater treatment systems; reuse of wastewater as a source of nutrient and irrigation water to boost agricultural productivity. These and other nexus initiatives are complimented by asset and system management plans by utilities to ensure assets are properly managed and maintained to build efficient utilities. It was revealed by the panelists that collectively, the interventions have resulted in substantial energy and financial savings for utilities on the continent.


Other issues discussed included adaptation measure for imminent climate change, especially extreme weather events and risks posed to the power sector, the synergies between utilities and agricultural systems; optimizing efficiency and the transitions required in technology to reduce, recycle or use alternative water and energy sources; hydropower potential in Africa; the nexus dilemma of biofuels and private sector participation and involvement in the nexus agenda. Some insights into the World Bank’s Thirsty Energy Initiative were provided - its relevance for Africa’s development agenda and, in particular, how African countries can benefit from the initiative and how the World Bank could provide its experience to promote nexus driven initiatives on the continent. Also discussed was the integration of man-made and natural infrastructural solutions and the need for reliable data and institutional capacity for informed decision making.


It arose from the discussions that a major challenge facing policy makers and sector practitioners on the continent is the unavailability of the correct combination of decision tools for integrated resources assessment and planning. Besides the huge data constraints throughout Africa, which was identified as a major limitation, the bulk of modeling approaches in use in Africa are based on routine analysis of individual sectors or systems that are often focused only on a single resource (water, energy, food, etc.) with limited relevance for integrated medium- and long-term policymaking and planning. It was recommended that decision support tools which address policies for natural resources planning ought to illuminate the interactions and trade-offs between various dimensions of the nexus. In particular, integrated resource assessment at the national scale must aim to provide useful insights and help quantify variables related to the inter-linkages between different nexus dimensions. This could provide answers on the need for integrated cross-sector decision-making in order to help construct coherent policies, be it for land-use, energy, food, and water or forest management.


It was concluded that too much emphasis is often placed on the links between various nexus dimension while ignoring the benefits that can be accrued from the synergies among the dimension. By exploring joint opportunities and increasing efficiency across related dimensions or sectors, a nexus perspective can leverage access to water, energy and food, with opportunities for some tangible "game-changing" measures that could addressing several other development challenges. This knowledge can be used by various sectors to achieve interlinked objectives and goals because there are synergies and trade-offs in the actions of different sectors; that synergies can be optimized and the negative impacts of certain trade-offs can be minimized through coordination between sectors; that there are roles and responsibilities for different spheres of influence; that governments should strive to make and use policy in a much more integrated way; that the business community can be incentivise to adjust their production systems for efficient use of resources; that individuals should try to understand and manage their consumption patterns and the choices they make as their lifestyles change and as populations continue to grow and shift from rural to urban areas on the continent.


The panel discussion was moderated by Paul T. Yillia, IIASA Research Scholar with the Water Program and consultant on the nexus for UN Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All). The special session on water was chaired by Sarah M. Tibatemwa, Director, International Water Association (IWA) – Africa.

The panelists were:

  1. Peter Flower , Director, Water & Sanitation, City of Cape Town, South Africa;
  2. Deidre Herbst, Senior Manager, Environmental Management, Eskom, South Africa;
  3. Rose C. Kaggwa, Chief Manager, Institutional Development & External Services, National Water and Sewerage Corporation, Uganda;
  4. Oliver Johnson, Research Fellow on Sustainable Energy, Stockholm Environment Institute, Africa Centre;
  5. Diego Rodriguez, Senior Economist, Water Unit of the Department of Transport, Water and Information and Communication Technology, World Bank; 

In preparation of the event, Dr. Paul T. Yillia, gave an interview where he talked about the importance of the Water-Energy-Food Nexus.

The interview was originally published on the website of the African Utility Week (AUW).

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Last edited: 18 June 2014


Paul Yillia

Research Scholar

Water Security Research Group

Biodiversity and Natural Resources Program

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Africa’s present and future water and energy challanges will be discussed on this event in South Africa on 13 - 14 May 2014.

International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
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