How to reconcile water, energy and food?

Koen Vandepopuliere
13 November 2019
The aspirations for more water, energy and food appear to be increasingly contradictory. Can they be reconciled? KU Leuven is participating in a European project that investigates the issue in two important African basins.

The 'nexus' between water, energy and food means that the three elements are strongly interlinked. Think, for example, of the water that is needed for agriculture, but also for the production of energy. Think of the energy that is needed in agriculture, but at the same time in the purification or desalination of water. Think of biomass, which is used to produce energy, and much more. This nexus is being studied in a European project, DAFNE. The focus is on the Zambezi basin and on the Omo-Turkana basin in Africa. DAFNE has 14 project partners, including KU Leuven.

A drone is flying over a dam.
© Margot Verhulst

Two basins

The Zambezi basin covers an area of 1.32 million square kilometres and extends over 8 countries: Angola, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. In 2004, they created the Zambezi Watercourse Commission (ZAMCOM) with a goal of better coordinating the management of the basin’s water resources.

The Omo-Turkana basin is important in Ethiopia and Kenya. The Omo is a river in Ethiopia that feeds Lake Turkana in Kenya.

Prof. Jos Van Orshoven (KU Leuven): ‘In these two areas, the national governments are investing in large-scale infrastructure such as irrigation projects and dams for hydropower plants. China is doing the same. Some countries have the ambition to export electricity and food, including sugar from sugar cane, to surrounding countries, which they consider as an investment in prosperity. Both Ethiopia and Zambia, for example, aspire to do this.’

There is also an important copper and mineral extraction industry in Zambia. ‘They make the most important contribution to the Gross National Product but they do consume an enormous amount of water. So a shortage of water not only has an impact on food and electricity, but also on mining. Industry and the urban population are also affected, for example where it results in a shortage of water for domestic use.’

The project takes climate change into account, among other things. ‘We should not underestimate the impact of this but, according to our findings, the population growth and the aspirations for prosperity play a more important role.’

"We study the impact of upstream interventions on downstream communities in terms of agriculture, fisheries, floods and so forth."

A group of researchers from Ethiopia and Belgium are studying a map lying on a table.

Calculation model

‘The first ambition of the project is to use mathematical models to gain important scientific insights into the water cycle in those basins,’ the professor continues. ‘In doing so, we take into account not only the current users, but also those we expect in the future: new power stations, new irrigation projects, expansion of the mining industry, growing cities... We study the impact of upstream interventions on downstream communities in terms of agriculture, fisheries, floods and so forth. We also study the impact on nature reserves. After all, these are ecologically important and have tourism potential.’

The mathematical models we use for this purpose are related to those that prove to be interesting for our country. ‘Think of flood forecasters, and of drinking water companies that work with such models in order to manage our groundwater and surface water as sensibly as possible. The challenge for the project is to study areas that extend across several countries. In addition, less quantitative data are available there to support the policy. Finally, the pressure generated by water shortage over there is more important than it is here. It is certainly an enormous problem over there.’


Catholic University of Leuven

Within the DAFNE project, KU Leuven mainly researches the relationship between water and food. ‘We do this for both current and planned irrigation systems. For example, in Ethiopia, near Kenya, an irrigation project of 100,000 hectares of sugar cane is planned. This would be made possible by a few dams. But the initiative consumes a lot of water. We calculated the water requirement and we investigated how much food is produced with the current agricultural systems. One question was: how will this evolve? Taking into account population growth, changes in diet (wealthier people consume more meat), climate change and so on.’

It is our intention to develop a mathematical set of instruments, both for the water cycle and for the negotiation tool.

Prof. Van Orshoven


Unfortunately, Ethiopia and Kenya hardly consult each other. ‘All water comes from the Ethiopian highlands and flows via the Omo River to the Turkana basin in Kenya, where it is very dry. Kenyan communities therefore depend on the precipitation in Ethiopia, but there people are heard reasoning: ‘That is our water, we are free to use it the way we want.’ There is still room for progress in bringing these parties together on the basis of data that we generate through our objective models.‘

The situation is better in the Zambezi basin, partly thanks to the ZAMCOM committee. They have a certain tradition of consultation, says Van Orshoven. ‘But that does not immediately lead to perfect decisions, so that aspect needs to be further strengthened. The models and insights generated by a project such as ours can encourage consultation.’

In order to give consultation in both basins new opportunities, the project partners have come up with NSLs (Negotiation Simulation Labs). ‘This is a web application, an online community in which partners communicate on the basis of information gathered by the project. It is important that alternative decisions are offered for such a consultation. For example, calculations of the water cycle take into account whether or not intervention A or intervention B is realised. In this way, it becomes clear to the stakeholders what kind of impact these interventions have.’

An African woman holds a long tube in a cabbage field.
© Stefaan Dondeyne


‘It is our intention to develop a mathematical set of instruments, both for the water cycle and for the negotiation tool, the NSLs,’ says Van Orshoven. ‘The latter can continue to be used by the African stakeholders even after the project has ended. Ministries and regional policymakers, as well as social groups, are involved in the development of the project. After all, we strive for grassroots participation. Representatives of farming communities, a type of farmers' syndicates, are also taking part. Some live in areas that used to be flooded periodically. Because of the dams, this hardly ever happens nowadays which makes their agricultural and fishing activities more difficult. In addition, organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which is concerned with the wetlands in Zambia and Mozambique, also participate.’

Introducing scientific insights to policymakers remains a challenge.

Prof. Van Orshoven

Van Orshoven believes that the research helps to achieve various Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). ‘As you know, the success of such a project depends on many more factors than just scientific insights. It remains a challenge to introduce these to policymakers. This is another reason why we try to involve as many stakeholders as possible; a top-down approach does not work.’

The DAFNE project started on 1 September 2016 and will end on 31 August 2020. ‘In the meantime, we intend to involve additional local stakeholders in the project and train our African partners.’

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