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Q&A with Dr. Rabi Mohtar: 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. 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 and back in 2008, we realized when we were talking to each other–the water management folks and the water scientists–that we were not impactful in raising water as a global agenda because we did not talk holistically about what the water system interfaces with and we did not have enough leverage with the community that is impacting water security outside the water sector. So that’s when the discussion started, that water is an enabler to food security, economic growth, energy security and many other sectors and a holistic approach to water management is needed, and that was the beginning of the discussion about the water energy food nexus. Water started as the catalyst for this discussion and since then, I think there is a standalone community, i.e. the nexus community, that is not necessarily water-centric, and is now becoming a community on its own with different applications. Water is one of the applications, energy is another, food and more disciplines are also entering this for various reasons, but the platform is a system of systems approach to managing resources, and water is one of them. And I would say, from my perspective, that water is the most important one of them, in terms of how critical a resource it is for the future.

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

RM: I work on both water and food security. I have done more work on water in the past. Recently, after moving to the middle east, I am working more on food security. Our WEF today has expanded to include health at the institution I am at now. Not only do we look at water, energy and food, but also at human health and ecosystem health and world health. At the moment, most of my research platform is focusing on the nexus in its different dimensions so we do a lot of work in different applications and the most significant application at the moment that we are working 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 was published in 2017, we were in a position to raise awareness that you really have a lot of interactions in between and among the primary resources and that in order to really get to a point where you can manage these resources more effectively, you need to look at them through a system of systems approach. The ultimate nexus was that realisation, that you need to rise above all of the small interactions and rise above to 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 nexus management of these resources that rely heavily on the trade-offs between them. We realised that you cannot really address all of these processes when looking at an inclusive mega-modelling of all of these processes. Instead, we look at scenario-based approaches where you develop the analytics to compare various scenarios and come up with a ranking system that allows us to move forward, whether it’s a technology or a policy or an intervention. We look at how to develop the metrics, the analytics to compare various scenarios on an equal basis and the inputs of the stakeholders, and come up with an index that helps guide the policy, the interventions, and the actions moving forward. So this was the tool that we started even earlier than 2011. Today, there are many, many tools that have different scale and complexity, including the energy tool, the global calculator, the FAO tool, but we were among the earlier ones that promoted the systems view of the modeling and the trade-offs, and that proposed a sustainability index that was 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. We started in Qatar, and we had several applications in the Middle East, and more recently, we had an extensive case study scenario in San Antonio, Texas, looking at energy tools assessment, energy portfolio, looking at the trade-off between energy and food, at the different implications of water reuse from an energy perspective, from food security and also from water and soil quality. And we had a large scale implementation of indicators based in Turkey, so we have done several applications. And we have done some applications in other countries, including Japan, China and some analysis in Europe as well. All of these applications tended to have different scales in terms of geography and management. The point here is that because of the complexity of the system, it’s hard to generalize, so the nexus has to be grounded in a certain application in terms of location and also in terms of the scale and that’s what we have been focusing on.

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 you really need to move into a policy coherence platform to managing these resources. I think we made a lot of progress in the concept because it was intuitive, and people bought into it. The challenge today is that we don’t have a lot of good large scale examples that can convince people in power to invest in this approach so I think we 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 an investment along the lines of coherence between these primary resources is worthwhile. There are some good examples that I mentioned earlier, in Texas, that show the savings in resources and financial capital by looking at this systems approach but these are very few and we need larger scale and more comprehensive examples. I think that this is one of the main bottlenecks for the nexus so that the sceptics can be convinced.

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

RM: Yes, we have. We have climate change in some of our applications as part of the enumeration of the scenarios. There are many ways in which we continue to explore that in terms of modelling mainly we have done applications by looking at the scenarios and what are 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 and 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 be talking 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.