Food-Water-Energy Nexus in China: Challenges and Opportunities

Moving towards an ever increasing urban world and the pressure and strains that richer more expectant consumers place on the worlds resources put our ecosystem and ability to provide for the populations at risk. The food-water-energy nexus is at the centre of this considered development. The three areas are intrinsically linked and underpin almost all areas of human consumption and activity.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation states that:

“The water-energy-food nexus has emerged as a useful concept to describe and address the complex and interrelated nature of our global resource systems, on which we depend to achieve different social, economic and environmental goals. It is about balancing different resource user goals and interests-while maintaining the integrity of ecosystems”.

The nexus perspective can help to address the interdependence of food, water and energy so as to achieve a sustainable economic growth. Food production is the largest user of water globally, which is responsible for 80–90% of consumptive water use from surface water and groundwater. Water is also used to generate electricity, and about 8% of global water withdrawal is used for this purpose. Energy, in turn, is needed to transport and fertilize crops. Food production and supply chains are responsible for around 30 per cent of total global energy demand. Crops can also be used to produce biofuels.

food-water-energy nexus
Figure 1. Demonstration of FWE Nexus and its Constituent Issues

As the second largest economy in the world, China needs to figure out its way to achieve future sustainable growth against constraints in both quantity and quality of resources. Despite large endowment of fresh water resources, China is strained at one-third of the world average by per capita standards. Over the past 20 years, main stem water flows have decreased by 41 percent in the Hai River Basin and 15 percent in the Yellow and Huai river Basin – these three rivers supply water to much of China’s populous and dry northeast. Climate change has contributed to 65 percent of that change in river flow; the rest is from the overexploitation by cities, industry and agriculture.


China Water Risk
Figure 2. Total Water Withdrawal Intensity (all sectors, 2010). Source: World Resources Institute

China has experienced rapid urbanisation as the country makes transition to a more productive and service-based economy. Currently 56% of the population is living in urban areas and the figure is expected to increase to 70% by 2030. According to the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, over 300 out of 657 cities in 2014 were already facing water scarcity. How to ensure sustainable water supply for the rising urban residents will be a big issue to tackle.

What exacerbates the water stress is consumption by industries, with power generation, metallurgy, chemicals and textile being the largest water users. Especially for the power generation sector, a study by Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs estimated that China’s total annual energy production is responsible for 61.4 billion m3 water withdrawals, 10.8 billion m3 water consumption, and 5.0 billion m3 wastewater discharges in China, which are equivalent to 12.3%, 4.1% and 8.3% of the national totals for each water category respectively. China’s energy production is projected to rise by 40% by 2035 to meet both domestic and industrial demand. Correspondingly, required water amount will be massive and existing resource is unlikely sufficient if traditional way of energy production continues.

To create solutions for the challenges associated with the FWE nexus requires joint efforts of multiple stakeholders including government, citizens and responsible businesses. Business leaders play an essential role in innovating sustainable business model not just to cope with physical scarcity risks, regulatory risks and reputational risks, but also ensure a FWE secure future for all.

This article was written by Xueyi Liao and Lilly Xu, Research Analysts at Collective Responsibility


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