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Enhancing global cooperation to address the water-food-energy nexus

By Suleiman Al-Herbish
Director-General, OFID

 Food security, access to clean water and access to modern energy services are three recurring themes in the debate leading to the global community agreeing on the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). All three elements are essential for human development. And they are closely intertwined. Water is needed for almost all forms of energy production; energy is needed to treat and transport water; and both water and energy are needed to grow and produce food.

Traditionally, development planners have often sought solutions to the water, energy or food crises by addressing each problem separately. But tackling just one of the three elements can aggravate one or both of the others. A case in point is the irresponsible expansion of the production of first-generation biofuels in the second half of the last decade, which caused a huge rise in food prices, especially in the developing countries.  This example was highlighted in a special study, “Biofuels and Food Security,” commissioned by OFID and published in 2010.

It is a fact that the challenges posed to sustainable development by the strong inter-linkage between water, food and energy are confronted by all parts of the globe. However, some regions are more exposed than others. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, barely one-third of the population has access to electricity, and less than half has access to freshwater. The situation is likely to worsen as the availability of arable land (for agriculture production) declines; as competition for land and water intensifies; and as access to energy becomes a pressing constraint on economic growth.

As a development institution of almost 40-years’ standing, OFID has extensive experience in addressing these connected challenges.  In addition, our activities have covered other important sectors, including education, health, rural development, transportation, microfinance, industry and telecommunications.

Center Pivot Irrigation corn field

In all our work, we seek to ensure a balance between economic growth, social progress and protection of the environment. However, we do give priority to ensuring access to energy as an important element of sustainable development. This position is in response to the Third OPEC Summit in November 2007, which established the eradication of energy poverty as a priority for OPEC aid institutions. We were further convinced to pursue this strategy by the fact that energy access is a prerequisite to achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

OFID has learned over the years that for energy access to have a full impact on sustainable development it has to be related to the water and food dimensions. The three sectors must be treated in a holistic way—an approach that we call the water-food-energy nexus.  We firmly believe that the challenges in each of these areas can only be met by addressing all of them together.

We recognize that strengthening supply chains—including through coordinated investments in energy and transport infrastructure—will enable efficient food processing and faster access to markets.  Improved transport, storage, refrigeration and port facilities will facilitate trade in food and non-food products and reduce the costs of fertilizers and other inputs.  Such conditions will lay the foundations for agriculture to be an expanding, income-generating and profitable business sector in low-income countries where it is the backbone of the economy.

Within the context of the SDGs, interventions related to the water-food-energy nexus will move higher up the agenda of governments, development finance institutions and project sponsors. It is for this very reason that OFID’s strategic direction for the next decade will place more emphasis on enhancing investment in the nexus. This means that increasing our assistance to the development of agriculture and water management, alongside efforts to improve access to energy, will continue to be a priority.

If we, as a global community, are to rise to the challenges emanating from the nexus—including the need for investment—a concerted effort and pooling of resources will be essential. In this regard, global frameworks such as the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative (in which OFID is a key player), and the G-20 itself (Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, two of OFID’s 13 Member Countries, are also G-20 members) could play an important role.  Only by working together can we secure a prosperous and sustainable future for our world and its people.


 by Suleiman J Al-Herbish, Director-General, OFID (OPEC Fund for International Development)

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