Diversity as a key element of natural resource resilience: Water and energy, with examples from the Middle East and Asia

In a previous post, Diversity as a key element of urban resilience, we discussed the role of diversity in the resilience of cities. Here, we turn our attention to resilience of natural resource systems through diversity. Natural resources are a critical component of human development and sustainability. As resources such as energy and water become more scarce, reliability of the systems that make these resources available becomes increasingly important.

The processes necessary to obtain natural resources and make them available for consumption can span the globe — from resource extraction, transportation, storage, to supply of water to your kitchen sink or energy to light your house. Due to the global extent of these systems, availability and access to natural resources are vulnerable to a multitude of potential disruptions, such as extreme weather events, political conflict, or infrastructure failures. Some of this vulnerability can be mitigated by securing additional supplies and developing alternative distribution infrastructure. India, for example, is following this diversification path. Whereas coal provides more than 50% of energy supplies in India, the national energy policy has laid out a goal to reach a total of 175 GW of renewable capacity by 2020, including significant increases in solar, wind and hydroelectric production.

Conversations about resource security, and particularly water security, are intimately related to our understanding of sustainability and how humans should interact with their environment. Water security can be understood as “…the sustainable availability of adequate quantities and qualities of water for resilient societies and ecosystems in the face of uncertain global change”[1]. We need resource systems that can respond not only to sudden on-set disruptions, such as natural disasters, but also to gradual, yet irregular, changes in our global environment. This requires the ability to continually adapt and adjust. In these cases, a variety of governance and management strategies further increase resilience in systems that rely primarily on engineered solutions. For example, governance strategies to reduce water demand can augment diversification of water sources that provide additional supply. When a severe, seven-year drought hit the Middle East in 2005, the Israel Water Authority responded by both expanding water sources and managing water demand through water use restrictions and water-economizing strategies. Israel was already a leader in water recycling and reuse, treating over 80% of domestic wastewater and reusing it for irrigation. To add to this, desalination capacity has been expanded over the past decade to produce nearly 70% of domestic water use. Nationwide demand for water has been managed with high taxes on excess household water consumption, restrictions on watering lawns and washing cars, and agricultural crop rotation.

Groundwater irrigation pump. (Photo credit: John Poyser)
Groundwater irrigation pump. (Photo: John Poyser)

But, water and energy systems are complicated. Due to the physical natures of water and energy, each of these resources presents different challenges for acquisition and delivery. Water is difficult and expensive to transport (e.g., via aqueducts or pipes), but easy to store (e.g., in reservoirs). Energy, as electricity for example, is easy to transport (e.g., through electric lines), but difficult to store (e.g., in batteries). Thus, a more resilient water resource system might include additional sources located near cities, or areas with high demand (e.g., locating a wastewater treatment plant near the city).

In contrast, increasing the resilience of energy resources might entail better technology to store electricity, or optimization of electricity production timing to correlate with the daily pattern of urban energy demand (e.g., activating hydropower turbines during peak times).

Further, because provision of safe water requires massive amounts of energy, the security of water resources is inherently linked to the security of energy resources. The so-called water-energy nexus characterizes the interactions and tradeoffs between the production and delivery of water and energy: water is needed to produce energy, and energy is needed to produce water. For example, energy is needed to power groundwater pumps that bring water from aquifers to the ground surface. And, conversely, the largest diverter of water resources in the U.S. is the electric industry which uses water for cooling.

Fukushima nuclear plant (photo credit: Kawamoto Takuo)
Fukushima nuclear plant (Photo: Kawamoto Takuo)

Emergency situations, that occur following extreme weather events and natural disasters, highlight the importance of redundant resource supplies, and the critical links between water and energy. When a magnitude 9.0 earthquake caused a 15-metre tall tsunami to hit the northeastern coast of Japan in March of 2011 (resulting in the Fukushima nuclear disaster), 1.6 million households were left without access to safe water. The Japanese government responded by distributing water via tankers and bottle supplies. Interestingly, groundwater wells left undamaged could have provided additional water resources, but they were inaccessible due to lack of electricity to power the pumps. Had an alternative energy source been available (e.g., solar or wind energy), recovery from the disaster would have been more rapid because groundwater – an alternative water source – was available.

Resilient natural resource systems require diversity in sources, infrastructure and governance mechanisms, but must also address tradeoffs between water and energy and interactions among systems and processes at different scales and time frames. The complex interplay between water and energy underlines the importance of resilience in each system, and India provides an interesting case study. India’s national energy policy outlined a goal to produce 10 GW of hydropower potential from small hydropower facilities in the Himalayas by 2022. This goal contributes to meeting India’s rising energy demand, especially from cities, as well as her commitment to increase the percentage of total electricity supply derived from renewable sources. However, hydropower projects often have significant consequences for land and water resources in the rural areas in which they are built. Large hydropower dams have flooded large tracts of land formerly used for agricultural livelihoods and villages, forcing tens of thousands of people out of their homes. Smaller hydropower projects that operate without a dam, divert streamflow away from irrigation canals that support villagers’ food production. Such projects are examples of interactions between water and energy systems that occur across geographic scales – energy produced from hydropower facilities in the Himalayan foothills is transported to cities on the plains, however villages where facilities are built can experience negative consequences to their water resource supplies. Without alternative water sources for irrigation and food production, rural populations experience water insecurity in the face of expanding hydropower production – illustrating the tenuous balance between water and energy, and between resource insecurity and resilience.

Trishuli hydropower project, Nepal. (Photo credit: By Krishna kumar shrestha )
Trishuli hydropower project, Nepal. (Photo: Krishna Kumar Shrestha)

Where there are non-diversified energy sources, challenges can occur due to differences between the timing and location of energy production and demand. For example, Nepal relies primarily on hydropower for electricity production. Whereas the country has feasible access to an estimated hydropower potential of over 40 GW, the availability of this energy is dependent on the streamflow, and because rainfall is strongly seasonal, on the time of the year. Partly because hydropower production is severely limited during the dry season, nearly all areas of the country experience rotating power cuts, causing people to be without power for up to 18 hours per day. So, an energy-rich country can actually experience energy scarcity as a consequence of lack of diversity in energy sources.

Forward osmosis desalination plant in Oman. (Photo credit: Starsend)
Forward osmosis desalination plant in Oman. (Photo: Starsend)

Further, resilience depends on the context; it can be achieved differently in different places. Geographic characteristics, as well as the existing socio-political environment, can influence how diversity should be implemented and what energy-water tradeoffs make sense. For example, Persian Gulf countries have large oil reserves, but feature a dramatic scarcity of water. To provide water resources to a growing population, desalination plants produce approximately 90% of the water resources on the Arabian Peninsula. Although, desalination requires massive amounts of energy, these countries are able to provide this additional energy. Whereas in other places, this tradeoff wouldn’t make economic sense, in the Gulf region, it does. Notwithstanding potential environmental impacts on marine ecosystems and dependent human livelihoods, as desalination technology improves, it is becoming more attractive as an alternative water source in other highly populated, arid areas.

Additionally, many countries also aim to diversify energy and water sources as a means to reduce their dependence on imports from other countries. Being less dependent on energy imports increases a nation’s resilience to changes in the global economic and regional political environment.

A new 7 MW solar field in Elifaz, Israel brought online along with five additional fields in 2014 for a total of 36 MW. (Photo credit: Dafna Levy)
A new 7 MW solar field in Elifaz, Israel brought
online along with five additional fields in 2014
for a total of 36 MW. (Photo: Dafna Levy)

Countries in the Middle East, for example, are working to capitalise on high solar energy potentials, using this renewable source to increase resilience in terms of energy supply and energy independence. Jordan aims to increase the contribution of renewable energy sources to the total fuel profile to 10% by 2020, in part, to ensure domestic stability of energy resources. And although neighboring Israel has historically focused on coal, gas, and oil for electricity production, recent advances to begin harnessing the nation’s immense solar energy potential are expected to decrease Israel’s dependence on foreign fuels and specific fuel types.

To support sustainable development and resource security, system resilience and diversity of sources and access are critical at local, national, and international levels. Because our resource systems are intimately interconnected, increasing diversity of natural resources enhances resilience and security during natural variations, sudden disturbances, and human-caused system failures paving the way for a more sustainable future.


[1] Scott, C. A., Meza, F. J., Varady, R. G., Tiessen, H., McEvoy, J., Garfin, G. M., … Montaña, E. (2013). Water Security and Adaptive Management in the Arid Americas. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 103(2), 280–289.