Dornadula Chandrasekharam
Former Chair Professor I I T Bombay, India

Food & water: Security or independence — which is better?

Adopting Mesopotamia tribe’s barter system is in one way good for the countries under the current food and water security situation. Currently countries want to be food independent and not food secured. This is possible only when sufficient water is available for irrigation. Countries turning to sea to get fresh water through desalination process. The front runners are, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Djibouti and Yemen Republic. The commissioning of reverse osmosis desalination plant by Israel, in 2008 with a capacity of 30 million cubic meters / year in Palmachim together with existing Ashkelon plant will provide about 8% of country’s total potable water resources. The Ashkelon plant started in 2005 generates 130 million cubic meters of fresh water in a year. It is projected that by the year 2020 fresh water supply to the country will touch 30% supplying 650 million cubic meters of desalinated water. In Saudi Arabia over 33 desalination plants are in operation along the Red Sea coast and Arabian Gulf region. With government subsidy desalinated water costs 0.03 US$ per cubic meter against the global average cost of US$ 6/ cubic meters. Egypt perhaps is the first in MENA countries to have started desalination plant in 1912 generating about 75 cubic meters per day of potable water followed by Kuwait  commercialized desalination plant in 1957 at Shuwaik generating about 4600 cubic meters per day of desalinated water.

Desalination of sea water is  energy intensive process that consumes large electricity. This process also emits considerable amount of carbon dioxide gas. For example, the SWRO (Sea Water Reverse Osmosis) facility in Sydney processing 25000 cubic meters per day of desalinated water emits 954 tons of carbon dioxide per day. The energy (oil and or gas) required to generate 1000 cubic meters per day of desalinated water is about 850 tons. Because of the high energy cost, the desalinated water is also very expensive and can not be affordable by people in the low economic group countries.  For example, even when the cost of fuel was ~10 US$/ton, the desalinated water cost was US$ 0.5/ cubic meter. At present greater than 12,500 desalination plants are in operation in the world generating 98 million cubic meters per day of fresh water. One can imagine the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. No one talks about emissions from desalination plants! Question of priorities.  With ever increasing demand for water due to population growth fossil fuels-based desalination process to meet this demand will not be sustainable in future. More than 50% of the oil and gas supplies will be diverted to generate fresh water and oil and gas based industrial growth will shrink putting pressure on countries’ GDP.  Now the world is into “refined barter system”. Oil rich countries are investing in water rich countries for food: opening a different kind of VWT.  This is a win-win situation.

Libya is investing in Liberia, Mali, Sudan (White Nile) to grow rice (241000 ha) ; Saudi Arabia is investing in Ethiopia, Niger and Mali to grow rice (110000 ha) ; India investing in Ethiopia (White Nile; 100000 ha).  VWT is taking a different dimension making countries to compete for its own food security and to promote food exports to water stressed countries. Liberia, Sudan, Niger are economically very poor countries. But these countries have rich water resources compared to investing countries. These countries economy will grow through VWT but there should be a limit on the land that being leased out for growing food (to control exploitation; look at the area of agricultural land leased out!!). India is water and food surplus country. Investing in Ethiopia is purely a commercial venture. But there are other countries that have neither water nor oil resources. Take for example Eritrea and Djibouti. Since Djibouti is strategically located, this country is being (at least the town Djibouti) economically supported by the West. This new kind of “barter system” will not sustain for a long. All depends on the political policies and scenario of the country leasing out the land. Food importing countries will be at the receiving end in case there is a political policy change. For sustainable development countries should be “food independent” and not “food secured”. This happens only when countries are energy independent. Countries need not be loci of oil and gas rich sedimentary formations/ basins. Geothermal energy is there for everyone to exploit and use it for development. This is the natural heat scavenged from the earth’s interior and utilized to generate electricity. MENA and sub-Sahara countries have huge unexploited geothermal resources. These countries should focus on developing this energy resource that is free. The countries policy should be to request financial aid institutions to fund developing geothermal energy development. Once this energy source is developed then there is no looking back for these countries with regard to food and water independence. Over a period of time they will be the most powerful economy in the world since they are food independent. The cost of desalinated water using different energy sources is given below. It is obvious that desalination plants operating on geothermal power is very economical and with low emissions.

Oil         Solar         Wind         Geothermal
Power input kWh/1000 L                  6              6                 6                6
Cost US$/1000L                               21          15                 8                1.6
CO2 emissions kg/1000 L                 4             0                  0                0.4

The above data is published in “Energy, Sustainability and Society journal” by the author

Providing short term financial aid and food aid to water starved countries by financial instructions and UN aid institutions are not permanent solutions and such solutions are l not sustainable.

Recently, UNICEF recommended nearly 1.6 million US$ to provide health, sanitation and food for the rural population in Djibouti.  This is considerable amount. Such aids should focus on developing energy source available in the country for making food and water independent. Countries should focus on food independence rather than depending on VWT.

About the Author
I am a Retired chair professor from Indian Institute of Technology Bombay and currently teach at IIT Hyderabad. I have 200 publications in the above fields and have supervised 25 Ph D students.