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Q&A with Dr. Rabi Mohtar: On The Water-Energy-Food Nexus

This blog series will share interviews conducted with speakers for the international conference “Towards a Sustainable Water Future” held in Bengaluru, India from September 24 to 27, 2019. The conference is organized by The Sustainable Water Future Programme (Water Future), a Global Research Project of Future Earth, in partnership with the Divecha Centre for Climate Change. It will address the current state of global water resource challenges, future pathways and scenarios, and different technological, and institutional solutions to accelerate the implementation of water-related Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Agenda. Here we talk to experts on the future of water.

Dr. Rabi Mohtar is the Dean of the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences at the American University of Beirut, and TEES (Texas Engineering Experiment Stations) Research Professor at Texas AM University, College Station, Texas. He was the founding director of Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute (QEERI), a member of Qatar Foundation, Research and Development and founding director of Strategic Projects at Qatar Foundation Research and Development. He was also the inaugural director of the Global Engineering Programs at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana. His primary research priority is the development of a framework to quantify the interlinkages of the Water-Energy-Food Nexus that is constrained by climate change and social, political, and technological pressures. In this interview, we talk to him about the WEF nexus and its applications.

Anupama Nair (Divecha Centre for Climate Change): You have done extensive work on the water-energy-food nexus. What does this nexus represent and how was it conceived?

Rabi Mohtar: I started my career in water security. Back in 2008, we realised that we were talking to each other – the water management folks and the water scientists – but that we were not impactful in raising water as a global agenda. This was because we did not speak holistically about what the water system interfaces with, and did not have enough leverage with the community outside the water sector that also impacts water security. That’s when the discussion started: that water is an enabler to food security, economic growth, energy security, and many other sectors; that a holistic approach to water management is needed. This was the beginning of the discussion of the water-energy-food nexus. Water was the catalyst for this discussion; since then, a standalone community, i.e. the WEF nexus community has developed. This community is not water-centric, and is now becoming a community of its own with different applications. Water is one of those applications; energy is another; food and other disciplines are also entering the community for various reasons. Nevertheless, the platform offers a system-of-systems approach to managing resources, one of which is water. I would say that, from my perspective, water is the most important of them, in terms of how critical water resources are for the future.

AN: So within this approach, is it centrally water that you focus on?

RM: I work on both water and food securities. In the past, I have done more work on water, but after moving recently to the Middle East, I find myself working more on food security. Our WEF today has expanded to include health at the institution I now work with. We look not only at water, energy, and food, but also at human health, ecosystem health, and world health. At the moment, most of my research platform focuses on the nexus in its different dimensions: we do a lot of work on various applications, the most significant, at the moment, on are the Sustainable Development Goals.

AN: You have referred to the WEF nexus as the ultimate nexus in some of your work that I had come across. Why would you refer to it as the ultimate nexus?

RM: At the time, that article was published (in 2017),we were in a position to raise awareness about the fact that there are really a lot of interactions both between and among the primary resources. In order to really reach a point where one can manage these resources more effectively, we must look at them using a system-of-systems approach. The ‘ultimate nexus’ was the realisation that we must rise above all the small interactions and reach the systems of systems approach.

AN: What kind of tools have been used in terms of applying the WEF nexus to studying water security?

RM: We were among the first research groups to suggest a platform for the management of these nexus resources; a platform that relies heavily on the trade-offs between them. We realised that one cannot really address all of these processes through an inclusive mega-modelling. Instead, we looked at scenario-based approaches, in which the analytics are developed to compare various scenarios and provide a ranking system that allows us to move forward, whether with a technology, a policy, or a different intervention. We looked at how to develop the metrics, the analytics, to compare various scenarios on an equal basis, included the inputs of the stakeholders, and produced an index that helps guide the policy, the interventions, and the actions moving forward. We began working on this tool even before 2011. Today, there are many, many tools with different scales and complexities. These include the energy tool, the global calculator, the FAO tool, but we were among the earlier ones that promoted the systems view of the modelling and the trade-offs, and proposed a sustainability index used to rank these solutions.

AN: Could you elaborate a little bit about how you have applied the WEF nexus approach to any specific location? And what kind of scale do you apply these approaches to?

RM: We have applied it at numerous locations, beginning in Qatar, and with several applications in the Middle East. More recently, we had an extensive case study scenario in San Antonio, Texas that looked at energy tools assessment, energy portfolio, the trade-off between energy and food, the different implications of water reuse from the perspectives of energy, of food security, and of water and soil quality. We also had a large scale implementation of indicators based in Turkey. We have done several applications in other countries as well, including Japan, China, and Europe. Each of these applications tend to have different scales in terms of geography and management. The point being that because of the complexity of the system, it’s difficult to generalize: thus, the nexus must be grounded in a certain application in terms of location (spatially) but also in terms of scale. This is our current focus.

AN: Like you said, you were some of the first few people to explore the WEF nexus approach and ever since, it has gotten a lot of attention. How much progress would you say has been made in applying this approach to address real time issues of water security and how do you see it get even more recognition and usage in the future?

RM: Early on, our challenge was to convince the stakeholders that they really needed to move into a policy coherence platform for managing these resources. I think we made a lot of progress in the concept because it was intuitive: people bought into it. The challenge today is that we don’t have a lot of good, large scale, examples able to convince people in power to invest in this approach. While we do have lots of small scale examples, we are yet to see a large scale application of the nexus that can convince governments and policymakers that investment along the lines of coherence between the primary resources is worthwhile. There are some good examples, such as in Texas, that show the savings in resources and financial capital in using this systems approach, but these are very few and we need larger scale, more comprehensive examples. I think that this is one of the main bottlenecks to convincing skeptics about the nexus.

AN: Have you looked into how climate change fits into the WEF nexus approach?

RM: Yes, we have. Climate change in included in some of our applications as part of the enumeration of the scenarios. We continue to explore that in terms of modelling, in many ways. We have developed one application by looking at the scenarios and the drivers of the decision making process. There is more to be done in this area. In fact, not only climate change but also population, other technological drivers, and some of the economics. More explicit work needs to be done on this as we move forward.

Dr. Rabi Mohtar will speak more about the WEF nexus further during his special session titled ‘Innovatively Addressing WEF Challenges’ on Wednesday, 25 September. Another special session on the WEF nexus, in the context of drought conditions, organised by the Centre for Natural Resources and Development and the Institute for Technology and Resource Management, will take place the next day. Dr. Mohtar has been happy seeing submissions from scholars about the WEF nexus in the South Asia region and is looking forward to engaging with colleagues from a region that he has not been able to explore as much yet.