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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


July-August 2016

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Food, Water, and Energy: Lessons From the South African Experience

There are complex and extensive couplings between water, energy, and food security. The emerging tensions between these resources are situated within a larger nexus of developmental agendas and environmental considerations. Inevitably, this complex set of interdependencies will be exacerbated by climate change. Until recently, much of analysis and policymaking focused on each resource in isolation, resulting in underappreciated risks. A more holistic approach is needed to identify and analyze this nexus effect and propose corresponding policy measures. Consider South Africa as an illustration of this nexus and the way in which sector-specific policies and decisions can exacerbate risks. The South African experience also illustrates initial efforts at “nexus-conscious” analysis and policymaking, and it suggests broader lessons applicable elsewhere.

Investment in irrigated maize is increasing in South Africa. With less than 3% truly arable land area, increasing irrigated agriculture is the only means of expanding viable farmland.

Increasing resource price inflation and volatility in recent years have highlighted the interconnected and interdependent nature of energy, water, and food resources. Having endured electricity interruptions and rising electricity prices for the better part of a decade, South Africa now faces a potentially catastrophic drought. The intensity of the current El Niño event and associated decline in rainfall is expected to continue into the next planting season, which means the impact on food availability and pricing is still to be fully realized in the market.

Strategic reserves of food and water, and security of energy supply, contribute to a resilient economy and help to maintain social stability. As a water-scarce country with little arable land and dependence on oil imports, which must be purchased with a steadily devaluing currency, South Africa's economy is testing the limits of its resource thresholds. The interdependencies are numerous. Water is a prerequisite for food and energy production and the quantum required is immense. Energy is an important input in producing fertilizers and agricultural chemicals, growing crops, raising livestock, and accessing marine food resources. Both water and energy are required throughout the food value chain to process, package, transport, store, and dispose of food. Furthermore, water supply consumes energy at every stage of the production and supply chain: abstraction, treatment, distribution to end users, wastewater reticulation, and treatment. Finally, both energy and food production can significantly affect the quality of water bodies.

There is also a social and political dimension to this, particularly in how each of these resources and their interdependencies are managed at a landscape level and, ultimately, at the level of the household. South Africa's history of social exclusion and economic inequality determined on the basis of race has resulted in discriminatory natural resource access. For decades, “Black” population groups were denied ownership of land, provided with limited or no electricity sources, and were last in the queue for safe, clean water-provisioning systems. This legacy has compounded poverty, adding an additional challenge of addressing historic imbalances to the natural resources management task.

South Africa's geography also plays a role. The country is extensive (about three and a half times the size of Germany) and natural resources are not evenly or conveniently distributed. Moreover, the physical locations of some of the richest sources overlap geographically. The result is that some of the highest yielding agricultural production areas in the country are under threat from coal mining. In the northeast of the country, in an area smaller than Great Britain, in total 750,000 hectares of maize, soya beans, sunflower, sorghum, and pasture production are potentially endangered from expanding mines.1 Demand for coal is high, given that it accounts for 86% of South Africa's electricity. However, this area is also highly biodiverse, home to a unique grassland biome, and it includes some of the country's best farmland. It is also the source of South Africa's major inland rivers.

Unidirectional conversion of productive land from agriculture to mining has become a clear trend, raising concerns for the future management and sustainable use of natural resources.1 It is also indicative of a political power imbalance that favors the mining sector. This is, in part, rooted in the history of the two sectors, but it is also due to the fact that agriculture's contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP) has waned significantly from 17% 100 years ago to less than 3% today. The mining sector, by contrast, contributes about 9% and the largely coal-fired energy sector's contribution to the GDP is 15%.2 In this context it is worth noting that agriculture is by far the largest water user, consuming more than 60% of all water stored resources compared to the 2% water use of the energy sector and 2.5% for mining. This, however, is not the full story. Mining's water demand may be comparatively low, but a simplistic percentages allocation equation hides a massive economic burden. Mining is widely considered to have the greatest impact on water quality, even to the extent of rendering the water unfit for other uses.

The vital interdependencies between food, water, and energy were recognized as early as 2011 in the World Economic Forum's Water Security Report.3 In South Africa, however, there has been limited recognition of the synergies and trade-offs in managing these resources in local and regional planning. Coupled with short-term planning horizons, this sector-specific approach has exacerbated supply risks and made the management of these resources a foremost challenge for sustainable development.


South Africa has one of the world's highest levels of income inequality, pervasive unemployment, and significant household food insecurity. National health and nutrition survey data show that overall only 45.6% of the population are food secure. Predictably, the largest percentages of participants who experience hunger are in urban informal (32.4%) and in rural formal (37.0%) localities (see Pereira and Drimie, in this issue of Environment Magazine). The overriding response is to grow the economy in such a way that jobs are created for a largely unskilled workforce and rural livelihoods are bolstered. Agriculture plays a vital role here, as it has strong forward and backward linkages with the manufacturing economy. On average, it is three times more effective in reducing poverty than growth in nonagricultural sectors. In the case of Sub-Saharan Africa, agricultural growth can be as much as 11 times more effective in reducing poverty than nonagricultural growth.4 (For more on the food system in South Africa, see Pereira and Drimie in this issue of Environment Magazine.)

The agricultural sector has been identified not only as a job creator, but also as key to addressing pervasive resource access inequities. Currently, the sector is still defined by a century-old historical divide. As early as 1913, the government initiated a process to establish “reserves” aimed at entrenching segregation. These “Bantustan” reserves, which were formalized in the 1950s, covered only a small fraction of the country and were largely in areas of marginal agricultural value far from development nodes. Although apartheid government policies have been revoked, the legacy remains. Today South Africa has a dual farming system, with 87% of the land still owned by white commercial farmers and with the remainder farmed by a significantly larger number of smallholder black farmers in former Bantustans (for more detail see Pereira & Drimie in this issue).5 An estimated 8.5 million people (16% of South Africa's population) directly or indirectly depend on agriculture for employment and income. Therefore, policies related to agriculture must also meet the need for a structured redistribution process that ensures equity in access to and ownership of resources, particularly in the form of productive land and water use rights.

As mentioned previously, energy is also required throughout the food production process. While energy prices do not drive food prices and energy price increases should not be expected to induce a proportional increase in food prices, the link cannot be completely disregarded.6 Although the primary agriculture sector in the country consumes only 3% of total electricity generated in the country and this consumption has risen at 3% per annum between 1999–2000 and 2010–2011, rising electricity prices since FY 2007–2008 have led to a sizeable increase in the agriculture sector's electricity bill. For example, between 2009–2010 and 2010–2011, the annual electricity bill for this sector increased by 26%. The cost of electricity as a percentage of other variable costs has risen steadily over time for commodities like maize, which accounts for the largest share of the national basic food basket, which is the staple diet of the poor in South Africa, and which is the country's largest unprocessed agricultural export by volume.

More recently, in April 2016, while farmers were still coping with the impact of the worst drought in 100 years, diesel prices rose by 95 cents (15 American cents). For every 1 cent that the diesel price increases, the total increase in cost to farming is R10 million. In other words, the most recent increase equates to about R950 million additional input costs to the sector.7 Fuel and electricity price hikes can severely impact farm profitability. In the long term, this could affect investment in the agricultural sector and ultimately result in a decline in domestic food production. This trend is already in evidence. Overall investment into agriculture has been declining in real terms, and investment in research and development is below the government's own target.8


Box 1. Understanding Embedded Energy and Water in Beef and Dairy

Addressing waste in the production of feed cereals and meat offers the greatest potential gains from an energy and climate perspective. From a water perspective, the meat supply chain (both the production and distribution of meat) is also of high priority in terms of provision impacts and costs to the economy.9

WWF-SA conducted life-cycle assessments in the beef and dairy supply chains to understand the water and carbon hotspots.

What's in a mouthful of steak?

  • The packaging for two 500-g steaks can be made and disposed of for the same amount of carbon taken to produce a mouthful of steak.

  • Three hundred grams of steak is equivalent (in terms of carbon) to powering an average South African household for a day.

  • In terms of water, more than 20 packaging units are equivalent to one mouthful of feedlot finished steak, and around three packaging units are equivalent to one mouthful of free-range steak.

  • Between 5 and 30 liters of water are extracted from dams, rivers, and/or boreholes to produce every mouthful of steak, depending on whether the steak is free-range or feedlot finished.10

What's in a liter of milk?

  • It takes approximately 1,000 liters of water, at farm gate, to produce 1 liter of milk. This includes rain and soil water, with around 400 liters of water extracted from dams, rivers, and/or boreholes to produce a liter of milk.

  • On the farms, the biggest consumer of electricity is pumping for irrigation, so electricity use is especially significant in those farms growing a large portion of their feed, accounting for up to 15% of the total farm-gate carbon footprint.

  • The carbon footprint of the plastic packaging is equivalent to roughly 5 tablespoons of processed milk.11

Rising costs of energy also affect the cost of cooking and preparing food. For example, just the final step of cooking maize—a staple food for poor households—adds an estimated 20% to its total cost at the maximum permitted retail price of paraffin in the country.6

Given that the production of food is fundamentally linked to natural resources, any changes in consumption demand result in a concurrent change in the embedded water and energy in the final food product. Changing demand is a consistent feature of the increased urbanization and per-capita income growth, and both trends are strongly evident. Improved economic conditions twinned with rapid urbanization—more than half the population of 53 million live in urban areas—has driven a shift in dietary preferences and contributed to increasing waste. (For implications of this nutrition transition for human health and food security, see Pereira and Drimie in this issue.)

The growing preference for high-protein and energy-dense diets prompted the World Wide Fund for Nature in South Africa (WWF-SA) to expand its research in this area (see Box 1). Research findings reveal massive levels of embedded water and energy in meat and dairy products and the staggering amounts that are essentially lost in food waste every year.

The South African beef industry is expanding due to a growing economy, increasing population, and the emerging middle class. Traditionally, maize is crucial to the South African economy and food security, and it is the most important form of carbohydrate for human and animal consumption. Since the 1970s there has been a steady decrease in the consumption of maize and bread, and an increase in the consumption of chicken, beef, lamb, and pork. Animal protein requires significantly more land and water resources to produce, as well as having higher associated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Processed foods also require more energy and water than whole grains, fruits, and vegetables and provide far less calorific value. It is also worth noting that processed foods have the highest freight carbon footprint across road corridors in the country.12

It is estimated that one-third of food available in the country is lost to waste across the supply chain (see Pereira and Drimie in this issue). With wasted food, the embedded energy and water required to produce it are also wasted. WWF's estimates suggest that the cost of energy embedded in this food waste is R1 billion per annum. The energy wasted every year for producing food that is never consumed is estimated to be sufficient to power the city of Johannesburg for roughly 16 weeks. About 1.7 km3 of water is extracted from ground and surface water bodies to produce food that is subsequently wasted in South Africa (using 2012 figures). This is around one-fifth of South Africa's total water withdrawals. These water and energy costs, together with the cost of disposing of the waste, mean that food wastage comes at a very significant cost to the economy and environment. The limited incentives for alternatives to landfilling, such as bioenergy generation, represent a significant missed opportunity. What could be a potentially useful energy source is instead the cause of greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel use.9

Maize accounts for the largest share of the national basic food basket and is the country's largest unprocessed agricultural export by volume.

The combined effects of these complex drivers within an increasingly changeable climate are straining existing food supply systems, limiting availability and access, and ultimately impacting social security. There is some evidence to suggest a link in social unrest in informal settlements, in the mining sector, and among farm workers during recent years with a concurrent rise in food prices (see Pereira and Drimie in this issue).

Given their role in alleviating social deprivation, agriculture and food security are heavily embedded within, and impacted by, the policies and politics of South Africa's development objectives. Current policy approaches to the problem of food are constrained by their fragmented nature: They do not recognize the broader systemic nature of food and therefore struggle to recognize and respond to the interdependencies between food, water, and energy. The failure to adopt a more systematic approach to the resources has resulted in problems and risks in policy implementation. (For more on perceptions regarding policymaking and regulation of the food system in South Africa, see Freeth and Drimie in this issue. Detail on food-specific policies can also be found in Pereira and Drimie in this issue.)

The best example of this comes from South Africa's National Planning Commission's National Development Plan (NDP), which seeks to eliminate poverty, deliver environmental protection, and promote economic development in the country by 2030.13 It identifies a number of broad-ranging and ambitious interventions in addressing food security, with job creation and agricultural productivity as priority responses. It also calls for achievable measurable outcomes related to food, water, and energy, among other things. However, the plan fails to fully explore the interlinkages and trade-offs in achieving the stated goals for each of these interdependent resources.14

With a view to generating rural jobs, the NDP and the Industrial Policy Action Plan15 propose a substantial increase in agricultural activity without explicitly acknowledging the concurrent burden on the water system. With less than 3% truly arable land area, increasing irrigated agriculture is the only means of expanding viable farmland. Commercial agriculture production is already heavily dependent on irrigation. Ninety percent of vegetable, fruit, and wine production and 12% of the total area under wheat are irrigated. There is a total of 1.5 million hectares under irrigation, and although this is 1.5% of the country's land surface, it accounts for 30% of the country's crops.

Agricultural policymakers expect the required water to come from water savings in the agricultural sector. The water sector, in contrast, sees little possibility for achieving the required level of savings and there is little additional water for irrigation allocated in the National Water Resources Strategy (NWRS).16 And if savings can be made, the water sector sees these as potential available allocations for other uses.

A similar absence of strategic insight is evident in the fact that no policy measures are undertaken to either manage the cost of energy for farms or enable them to adopt alternate energy sources such as renewable energy (RE). While the government is focused on RE-based power generation for the electricity grid, no policy interventions have been made to encourage the roll-out of RE-based applications for farms. This failure to consider the implications of increased water demand and associated energy requirements is just one of the indications that, at the highest level, a failure of coordination can be seen between the water, energy, and food sectors.17

This is partly due to large unemployment and poverty challenges driving decision-making processes. The apparent overriding objective of job creation sets hurdles in important regulatory instruments. One such example is the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), which is meant to vet projects in the context of sustainable development. The process is, however, impaired by the need to address a wide variety of concerns, so that many projects claim to be socially justifiable based primarily on employment creation.17


Freshwater ecosystems are under increasing pressure from rising demand in agriculture, food production, and energy consumption, as well as from pollution, most notably from coal mining (see Table 1). This situation is compounded by inadequate water management.

South Africa is a water-scarce country with a large part of the country classified as arid, making water a major constraint to economic growth. Rainfall is highly variable and almost all usable water yields are already allocated. This situation is projected to worsen under the “business-as-usual” scenario. Without significant policy shifts and serious water conservation efforts to manage the increasing water demand, water demand will exceed the national available yield by 2025.1

The unprecedented intensity of the 2015–2016 El Niño event and the related drought have given the country a foretaste of future climate-related water stress and its consequences on the environment, the economy, and the livelihood of South Africans. There is increasing consensus in South Africa's business and development community that water scarcity and water quality issues will increase dramatically in the short term,18 with significant economic consequences.

Table 1.

Water Quality Issues Associated With Agriculture and Coal Mining

Water Quality IssueAgricultureCoal Mining
Microbial contamination 
Acid mine drainage 
Suspended solids 
Altered flow regime

Sources: DWA (2001) and DWAF (2004) in BFAP (2015) (see note 1).             

In addition to aging infrastructure, the shortage of electricity is impacting the reliability of water systems. There already exist examples from the recurring rolling blackouts of 2007 and 2008,19 as well as more recently, in 2015, when municipalities were unable to provide water and wastewater services. Although the extent of the impact is dependent on the characteristics of the plant in question and the availability of backup power, continued shortage of electricity would mean that municipalities will incur additional costs. Ideally, these costs should be recovered through higher charges for consumers. However, the delays in the expected extent of municipal service delivery and related service delivery protests seen in the last two years will make such cost recovery difficult.

As water resources are not evenly distributed throughout the country, energy intensive interbasin transfer schemes help improve access. The buildings alongside the dam house the pumps and related infrastructure for the interbasin transfer scheme between the Mooi and uMngeni catchments in KwaZulu Natal.

Besides shortage, the cost of electricity also poses risks to the water sector. Electricity tariffs have increased annually by more than 20% between 2008 and 2011, followed by a 16% increase in 2012 and further annual increases of 8% until 2015. From a policy and planning perspective, there is a need to ensure that technology selection takes electricity costs into account, and technologies should be as cost-effective as possible.20 From the perspective of the country's water scarcity and deteriorating water quality, there may be the need to pump deeper and longer for groundwater, to recycle wastewater, to desalinate, and to treat brackish water. Both the shortage of electricity and rising electricity costs could prohibit the feasibility of these options, or involve serious trade-offs between water and energy security. However, such discourse is not yet visible in policymaking.

Policymaking is also weak in recognizing the severe threat posed by the country's fossil-fuel-intensive food and energy systems to the quality of water resources.21 Ironically, the fossil-fuel-based energy system is contaminating water resources to an extent that water is becoming unusable for this very energy system. For example, the Olifants River catchment has been so contaminated by coal mining that water from the catchment is not fit to be used in the coal-fired power stations reliant on this catchment.19

The quality of freshwater resources in South Africa has been on a steady decline as a result of increased pollution. Freshwater ecosystems associated with South Africa's large rivers are in a critical state, with 84% considered endangered or vulnerable.22 This is further exacerbated by water scarcity. NWRS16 identifies water deficits in more than half of the 19 water management areas (WMAs). As almost all available water resources are already allocated, South Africa has no spare capacity for the dilution of pollutants, so all pollutants and effluent streams will have to be treated to ever higher standards before being discharged.23

An increase in contaminants in irrigation water has implications for food safety and access to agricultural produce export markets. Poor water quality could result in a loss of access to stringently regulated agriculture export markets like the European Union (EU), costing R190–570 million for farmers in the Western Cape Province alone.14

The response to this risk varies, but the following examples reflect a growing trend. In the retail sector, a collaboration between a local and a UK retailer aims, with the support of WWF-SA, to address water-related risks in the stone fruit supply chain. The project has progressed to action among multiple stakeholders to address water issues at a catchment level. A multinational beverage manufacturer, after conducting research that found that more than 95% of its water dependence lies in the agricultural supply chain, adopted water-wise farming guidelines for farmers. The problem of food waste is also, as a result of the potential cost savings, being tackled by the supply chain from the farmer to the retailer. The business community is increasingly moving into what is primarily a government mandate, even to the extent of capital investments into municipal water treatment works in order to reduce water quality risks to canning and processing facilities.

These business investments allow government to focus on the role of the agricultural sector and water allocation in poverty alleviation. But there is an increasingly evident downside in the form of poor capacity and skills development in the public sector. Unless the private sector actively compels government participation in the safe and efficient management of water provision, it may remain the private sector's responsibility.

As in agriculture, the imbalances created by apartheid laws need to be addressed in determining water allocations and the benefits derived from water. Consequently, the right to clean water is enshrined in the Constitution, the White Paper on a National Water Policy and the National Water Act 36 of 1998. The critical importance of water has been recognized at the highest levels in government, prompting the development of sophisticated water resources technical and planning capacity.16

Informal fresh produce sellers, such as this one in Cape Town city centre, are a frequent sight and an important source of income for the urban poor.

Despite this, there remains a misalignment in the NDP that proposes an increase of more than 50% of irrigated land to grow agricultural jobs. The Department of Water, on the other hand, estimates a 1.7% water shortfall in the country as early as 2025. Over and above allocation issues, current practices also do not adequately account for the “nexus.” This particularly applies to the high degree of wasted water, not just from poor supply management, but also, as indicated earlier, through embedded water and energy in wasted food.

As the country evaluates future food production and energy options, regional integration needs to be part of the debate. South Africa is a net importer of water and the four river systems shared with neighboring states account for approximately 60% of the surface water to rivers in, or on the perimeter of, South Africa.1 As a result, water policy gives international allocations of water the second highest priority, after water for basic human needs and the ecological reserve.17 Shared resources result in shared risks in the region and common future prospects.

Ultimately, while regional integration is important for long-term sustainability, it cannot be tackled until the approach to domestic water management has addressed the lack of investment, institutional capacity challenges, and the absence of harmonized policy and political hurdles.


South Africa's energy challenges take the form of a severe shortage of electricity generation capacity and rapidly rising electricity prices. Although the concerns around oil prices have now been stemmed, the volatile nature of oil prices means that oil prices will always remain a concern for the country since 95% of the crude oil requirement is imported. The current shortage of electricity is a result of the lack of timely investment and efforts are being made to rectify it. However, capacity addition is unlikely to ensure energy security in isolation from water security.

The bulk of electricity generation (86%) is coal-fired, with a heavy reliance on relatively water-intensive, wet-cooled coal power stations.

The current energy system is highly water-intensive because of the reliance on coal-based energy. The energy system uses water as an essential input resource with the bulk of electricity generation (86%) being coal-fired, with a heavy reliance on relatively water-intensive, wet-cooled coal power stations. Although future capacity-building plans for electricity propose a larger share of RE, which is less carbon and water intensive, coal would continue to account for over 60% of the generation capacity in 2030. The shortage of water will therefore directly impact electricity generation.

Moreover, most of the country's coal-based power plants are in areas that already experience moderate to high levels of water scarcity and thereby necessitate the need for interbasin water transfers.19 Even the new coal-fired power plants of Medupi and Kusile are located in the relatively constrained Limpopo WMA and the severely constrained Olifants WMA, respectively.24 Since energy planning takes place at the national level and water planning focuses at the WMA level, issues of water shortage at WMA level for energy production slip through the cracks.

Nevertheless, the water intensity of the energy sector has meant water and energy planning are more aligned. Electricity production is considered to be a high-value economic use of water, and electricity producers are considered to be “priority users”; hence, this allocation of water takes precedence over most other activities. Then the NWRS for South Africa notes that electricity generation is dependent on a reliable water supply, that there are water challenges associated with new power stations, and that the water demand of the energy sector needs to be reduced.

Similarly, water is recognized in the Integrated Resource Plan 2010–2030 (IRP) as a key constraint for the electricity sector. Water usage is included as one of the criteria in all the scenarios. The NDP and Industrial Policy Action Plan (IPAP) call for a shift toward RE. The Biofuels Industrial Strategy, which outlines the government's approach for biofuels, mandates the achievement of a 2% penetration level of biofuels in the national liquid fuels pool. This figure was adjusted down from 5% after National Treasury expressed concerns about the water requirement implications. The Department of Water Affairs (DWA) also notes that no water should be used for producing biofuels under irrigation and calls for caution as far as fracking is concerned.17

Policies do, however, have deficiencies. For example, the IRP only considers water usage as a decision-making criterion and does not plan for the risks of potential water scarcity for planned generation capacity or the electricity sector's ability to provide reliable energy supply in the event of water scarcity.19 Similarly, policies are short-sighted in that they only plan for new coal power plants to utilize dry-cooling technology and ignore a long-term solution for a low-water-intensive electricity system.19 The use of dry cooling also reduces the efficiency of power plants.

The same can be said for policymaking that aims to change the country's energy mix to improve environmental outcomes. Being reliant on coal, the electricity sector accounts for nearly 50% of the country's greenhouse gas emissions. Pursuing solutions such as carbon capture and storage to reduce the emissions intensity of coal-fired power plants could increase water consumption of these plants by 46–90%.25 New energy sources such as shale gas, which estimates peg around at least 485 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) in the country,26 rely on hydraulic fracturing and are also highly water intensive, using up to 5 million gallons of water per well.27 The demand for water may become even greater if existing coal plants are not decommissioned due to a generation– capacity gap, or if flue-gas desulphurization technology is introduced to reduce the sulfur emission of coal-fired plants, resulting in a water demand in the region of 173.7 Mm3/annum by 2030.25

The biggest shortcomings are that planning is limited to the availability of water for energy and not vice versa, and that policy does not take into account the negative impact of energy production and consumption on the quality of water. As indicated earlier, this is problematic given the predominantly fossil-fuel-intensive electricity generation capacity and the declining quality of fresh water resources in the country.


As the demand for and concerns over food, energy, and water security grow, the complex physical, social, and economic interactions between these systems will require coordinated and integrated management. This problem is not specific to South Africa, but South Africa, with all its complexities, represents a powerful illustration of the multiple variables which need to be taken into consideration. The country's history of social exclusion demonstrates that simply referring to the nexus as constituting three resources overlooks the critical political and social dimension.

Wind turbines in the canola fields of the Western Cape.

Acknowledging the interdependencies and complex coupling is only a first step toward such integration. The real solution lies in governance: in managing multiple intersecting developmental objectives within resource thresholds. Yet governance remains the biggest concern for effectively addressing concerns created by the nexus. For example, development planning at the national level in South Africa focuses on new arable land without due regard for the resulting implications for water demand. Similarly, the pursuit of some low-carbon-energy solutions will inadvertently place significant pressure on the already stressed water resources in the country. Besides the risk for water security, there are risks that both food and energy security could fall into jeopardy.

Improving governance is, however, not simply a mechanical matter of better coordination between government departments, although this is necessary. It requires a change in the very approach to dealing with these resources and revisiting the mechanism that determines what issues are addressed, when and how. For example, while energy-related decisions in South Africa go through the economic or infrastructure ministerial decision-making cluster, agriculture- or food-related decisions tend to go through the social cluster.17 Once again, this imbalance may not be unique to South Africa and arises from the value attached to different resources and energy being considerably more prized economically.

A pessimistic outlook would suggest that as the policies of South Africa are still mired in the experiences of the past, government would be unable to respond effectively if critical thresholds are breached. And for the reasons set out in this article, there is a medium risk of this outcome in the short term. Fortunately, indications of a more optimistic outcome are also evident. Current efforts by government to engage business and civil society in the planning process along with the shared concern around the impact of El Niño and future climate changes suggest reasons for cautious optimism.

The challenge will be to effectively respond to the complexity of better managing the synergies and trade-offs between food, water and energy. There is no one silver bullet solution, no one actor who can solve this. Nexus problems cannot be tackled in silos—each resource on their own—but will require cross-sectoral forms of partnership and participatory management involving government, private sector, civil society and local communities. It requires a shift towards a more inclusive society, to address poverty without damaging those services and sectors that are central to securing the livelihoods of the poor. Political choices and technologies will help, but a transformation of social values and of relations between different social actors will also be necessary.


1. Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP), The Balance of Natural Resources: Understanding the Impact of Mining on Food Security in South Africa (Pretoria, South Africa: Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy, 2015).

2. Department of Water Affairs (DWA) of the Republic of South Africa, 2013. National Water Resource Strategy 2 (Pretoria, South Africa: Department of Water Affairs of the Republic of South Africa, 2013).

3. World Economic Forum (WEF), 2011. Water Security: The Water–Food–Energy–Climate Nexus (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2011), 243.

4. The size of the labor force that works in the agriculture sector is generally larger than the share of economic output from agriculture. As so many of the poor work in agriculture, agricultural growth is more likely to involve and benefit the poor than is nonagricultural growth (FAO, 2012).

FAO, WFP and IFAD. The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012. Economic growth is necessary but not sufficient to accelerate reduction of hunger and malnutrition. (Rome, FAO) 2012.

5. M. Aliber and B. Cousins, “Livelihoods after Land Reform in South Africa,” Journal of Agrarian Change 13, no. 1 (2013): 140–165.

6. K. Mason-Jones, P. Notten, and N. Rambharan, Energy as an input in the food value chain. Understanding South Africa's Most Urgent Sustainability Challenge (South Africa: WWF-SA, 2014).

7. E. de Kock, Fuel Price Increase to Have Devastating Effect On Agricultural Sector, (April 3, 2016).

8. D. Hampton and K. Weinberg, “Food Inflation and Financial Flows,” in Understanding the Food Energy Water Nexus (South Africa: WWF-SA, 2014), 13.

9. P. Notten, T. Bole-Rentel, and N. Rambaran, “Developing an Understanding of the Energy Implications of Wasted Food and Waste Disposal,” in Understanding the Food Energy Water Nexus (South Africa: WWF-SA, 2014).

10. P. Notten, I. Patel, and R. Pieterse, Life Cycle Assessment of South African and Namibian Beef Retailed in South Africa (Cape Town, South Africa: The Green House & WWF, 2016).

11. P. Notten and K. Mason-Jones, Life Cycle Assessment of Milk Production in the Western Cape (Cape Town, South Africa: The Green House & WWF, 2011).

12. WWF South Africa, “Low Carbon Frameworks: Transport Understanding Freight Emissions,” Paper Commissioned From The Green House (Cape Town, South Africa, 2013).

13. National Planning Commission, “National Development Plan” (2012). National Planning Commission, Pretoria.

14. T. von Bormann and M. Gulati, The Food Energy Water Nexus, Understanding South Africa's Most Urgent Sustainability Challenge (South Africa: WWF-SA, 2014).

15. Department of Trade and Industry of the Republic of South Africa, Industrial Policy Action Plan (IPAP). Economic sectors, employment & infrastructure development cluster. IPAP 2015/16 – 2017/18 (Pretoria, 2015).

16. Department of Water Affairs (DWA) of the Republic of South Africa, National Water Resource Strategy 2, (Pretoria, 2013).

17. S. Goga and G. Pegram, Water, Energy and Food: A Review of Integrated Planning in South Africa, Understanding South Africa's Most Urgent Sustainability Challenge, (South Africa: WWF-SA, 2014).

18. G. Pegram, F. Eaglin, and K. Laing, Conceptual Framework for Assessing Water Use in Energy Generation, with a Focus on Hydropower (Cape Town, South Africa: Pegasys, August 2011).

19. M. Gulati, “The Energy and Water Nexus: The Case for an Integrated Approach for the Green Economy in South Africa,” in L. K. Mytelka, V. Msimang, and R. Perrot, eds., Earth, Wind and Fire: Unpacking the Political, Economic and Security Implications of Discourse on the Green Economy: An Integrated Policy Approach to a Green Economy (Johannesburg, South Africa: Real African Publishers and Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection, 2015), 187–212.

20. R. Scheepers and M. Van der Merwe-Botha, “Energy Optimization Considerations for Wastewater Treatment Plants in South Africa—A Realistic Perspective,” ReSource (February 2013): 56–58.

21. J. Wakeford, C. Kelly, and S. Mentz Lagrange, Mitigating Risks and Vulnerabilities in the Energy-Food-Water Nexus in Developing Countries (South Africa: Sustainability Institute, 2015), page 12.

22. Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Atlas of Freshwater Ecosystems Priority Areas in South Africa (Pretoria, South Africa: Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, 2011),

23. A. Turton, Three Strategic Water Quality Challenges That Decision-Makers Need to Know About and How the CSIR Should Respond, Keynote Address: A Clean South Africa (Online, 2008),

24. A. Pouris and G. A. Thopil, Long Term Forecasts of Water Usage for Electricity Generation: South Africa 2030, Report No. 2383/1/14 (Pretoria, South Africa: Water Research Commission, 2015).

25. Eskom, Eskom's Submission to the DWA for the National Water Resources Strategy Review (Johannesburg, South Africa: 2011), Eskom.

26. S. Fakir, Framework to Assess the Economic Reality of Shale Gas in South Africa (South Africa: WWF-SA, 2015).

27. R. Jackson, Geochemical Studies of Shale Gas and Hydraulic Fracturing For Water and Air Resources in Pennsylvania. Society for Risk Analysis Webinar Series (February 27, 2014), (accessed March 29, 2014).

Tatjana von Bormann is senior manager of the Policy and Future's Unit at the WWF South Africa. Her work focuses on transformation of the food-agriculture supply chain and includes the use of Life Cycle Assessment to investigate carbon, freshwater and land impacts and research into the food energy water nexus and its implications for food security.

Manisha Gulati is an energy economist at WWF South Africa. She has over 15 years of experience and her main areas of work are energy, low carbon development, green economy, and food energy water nexus.       


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