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9th December 2015
What is the Water-Food-Energy Nexus?

ABNexusQuote=Water, food, and energy sustain life, environmental ecosystems, and the economy. However, as demands on these resources continue to grow on a global scale, so too will competition for these important resources.

To better understand these resource conflicts, the water-food-energy nexus (known as the Nexus) seeks to connect systems to achieve a more holistic management of natural resources around the world.

In recent years, numerous organizations have acknowledged the importance of the Nexus, recognizing the concept in the following ways:

The World Economic Forum identifies the Nexus as the interconnectedness of water, energy, food, and climate [1].

At the 2011 Nexus Conference held by the German Federal Government, the Nexus was loosely defined as the relationships and interdependencies between the secure supply of water, energy, and food [2].

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAOUN) describes the Nexus as “the complex and inter-related nature of our global resource systems”, wherein “different resource user goals and interests” must be balanced, while also maintaining ecosystem integrity [3].

A report published by Ceres in 2015 recognizes the Nexus as the connections between water security, agricultural production, and economics [4].

A common understanding of the Nexus concept is its critical role in the sustainable management of resources by identifying key interdependencies between multiple sectors [5]. For example, the water, food, and energy sectors each face overlapping challenges that require decisions to consider multiple interdependencies and trade-offs. These trade-offs can be challenges such as water use, crop yield, or energy production [6].

Furthermore, the Nexus concept recognizes that interactions between the natural environment and human, social, and economic needs can be managed in relation to one another [7]. This approach can help manage trade-offs between interconnected sectors, while identifying common issues between sectors to limit challenges, such as competition and resource scarcity [8].

The Water-Food-Energy Nexus in Alberta

Water lies at the heart of Alberta’s social, environmental and economic well-being. An adequate water supply is required to meet demand from our growing population, maintain and improve environmental health, and support the production of food and energy. Meeting all of these needs is already challenging as Alberta experiences increasing pressure on water supplies due to population growth, economic development, and climate change.

In Alberta we are further challenged by the fact water is used by numerous competing sectors across the province. For example, communities require water to meet their daily drinking water, sanitation, and other household needs.

Agriculture, Alberta’s largest water consumer, uses water for irrigation to help meet food production demands. Alberta’s energy industry is also a significant water consumer, with water used intensively in a range of oil and gas production activities like oil sands mining, in-situ oil sands recovery, and hydraulic fracturing.

Our water resources and human population are not evenly distributed throughout the province, which poses another challenge. Approximately 80% of the water resources in Alberta are in the northern half of the province, while 80% of the population resides in the southern half. Alberta’s population is expected to reach 6.2 million in 2041, further constraining available water resources in the southern portion of the province [9].

Piloting the Alberta Nexus Project - a closer look at competing demands in the Bow River Sub-Basin

The Alberta Nexus Project is launching a pilot that examines the Nexus concept in the Bow River Sub-Basin, to determine specific issues and trade-offs in the water, agricultural and energy sectors, and how each of these trade-offs relate to the environment and land use.

The Bow River Sub-Basin is a portion of the South Saskatchewan River Basin and provides water resources to approximately 1.2 million people in the cities of Calgary and Airdrie, as well as the Towns of Banff, Canmore, Cochrane, High River, and Okotoks [10].

In this sub-basin, agriculture, communities, and the energy sector compete for water and land resources, with agriculture being the most significant consumer. Community use of water such as drinking water and garden watering, as well as energy uses (such as oil and gas production) also compete for water, albeit in smaller volumes.

The Bow River Sub-Basin faces increasing water resource challenges due to climate variability, agricultural production, accelerating population and economic growth, competing land-use practices, and the cumulative impact of this growth on the environment.

Meeting these challenges will not be easy, mainly due to the complex relationship between water, food, and energy. Furthermore, the absence of a formal approach to manage the trade-offs between sectors competing for water complicates our understanding of the best uses for Alberta’s water resources.

Over the coming months specific case studies examined in the Bow River Sub-Basin will be published here on the Alberta WaterPortal, as part of the development of a decision support tool that reflects the Nexus challenges.

With further development the tool could be adapted to other sub-basins, to help fill the current gap in understanding appropriate uses of Alberta’s water resources in the future.


[1] "Water Security - The Water-Food-Energy-Climate Nexus." World Economic Forum. Accessed October 2015.
[2] “The Water, Energy, and Food Security Nexus – Solutions for the Green Economy.” German Federal Government. Accessed October 2015.

[3] “The Water-Energy-Food Nexus – A New Approach in Support of Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Accessed October 2015.

[4] “Feeding Ourselves Thirsty: How the Food Sector is Managing Global Water Risks.” CERES. Accessed October 2015.

[5] “The Water-Energy-Food Nexus – A New Approach in Support of Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Accessed October 2015.

[6] “The Water-Food-Energy Nexus: Towards Planning and Decision Support Framework for Landscape Investment and Risk Management.” International Institute for Sustainable Development. Accessed October 2015.

[7] “The Water-Energy-Food Nexus – A New Approach in Support of Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Accessed October 2015.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Population Projects: Alberta 2015 – 2041.” Alberta Finance and Treasury. Accessed October 2015.

[10] “Profile of the Bow River Basin.” Bow River Basin Council. Accessed October 2015.