Skip to Content

             AQUAVALENS General Steering Group Meeting - Cassis, France, April 2016

The Nexus Water-Energy-Food and implications for Small Water Supplies

By Alma López-Avilés, Research Fellow, University of Surrey, UK 

A number of scholars and policy advisors, notably Professor John Beddington (2009), have talked about the Water-Energy-Food Nexus in recent times pointing out that unless more food, energy and freshwater are available in the next decade or so, shortages around the world will lead to public unrest and international conflict.  Research on the interactions between the Water, Energy and Food sectors is on the increase, and emerging issues around the Nexus include promoting sustainable carbon-neutral (clean) development, and securing energy, water and food supplies for a growing global population.
Within this context, localising food manufacturing can (and perhaps will increasingly) be coupled with decentralising energy and water sources.  This means that more solar, wind and small hydropower could be produced locally in small-scale food manufacturing businesses such as bakeries and flour mills, and can also imply more independent use of small water supplies in some places. 
In a recent UK project I was involved in, a tomato growing business and a beer brewery enterprise were interviewed and confirmed they had access to groundwater within their premises.  These businesses had a suitable licence and were within the law to abstract and use water (within pre-set limits) within their land and businesses.  The owner of tomato growing business said that they sometimes use their own supply of groundwater for irrigation, but found problems with the water chemical composition bleaching the tomatoes during some periods of the year.  Yet both businesses mainly relied on ‘mains water’ provided by the water company in their area, because this offers them more guarantees in terms of the tests and treatment that need to be undertaken to ensure a suitable water quality. 
However, both businesses pointed out that if water became metered (and in England at least it seems to be going that way) and if ‘mains water’ prices were to increase, they may find that testing and using their own small water supplies becomes an attractive option. Others seem to be thinking in similar ways if we are to judge by the fact that a new water company has emerged in the UK’s water market, which claims that it will take businesses ‘off-grid’ by sourcing their water locally (see ENDS, 2016).  


Tomatoes grown in the UK using hydroponics (soil-less growing of plants).  This technique uses a mix of water and expensive man-made nutrients and chemicals, salts and trace elements instead of growing plants and vegetables in the traditional way (i.e. rain-fed and grown in soil/fields).  The result is that large amounts of water may be used.  As water becomes more expensive and in high demand, more businesses in the UK and elsewhere are looking at using their own small water supplies (e.g. wells or boreholes) for food production instead of relying on ‘mains water’.



With an increasing trend to localise some food and drinks manufacturing in the UK as a response to consumers’ demand for local good quality/gourmet foods (e.g. more organic and locally produced artisan and organic breads, cakes, pies and flours, locally brewed beer, wine and cider, locally reared organic chicken, UK- grown strawberries, water-cress, apples etc.), it is possible to suggest that there will be more demand for localised sources of water and energy also.  Consumers and businesses are increasingly considering decentralised energy systems and local water sources (such as in the examples above), in order to ‘have control of one’s own sources’. Thus, looking towards water security and water resource planning in the future, stronger regulation on limits and water quality testing of small water supplies seems to be needed in the UK.

Beyond the UK, regulation of water abstractions also seems patchy across different regions within Europe.  For example in some places in eastern Spain (e.g. Valencia), where water resources are scarce and highly valued for agriculture, domestic and industrial uses, conflicts have been monitored and regulation and protocols have been in place for centuries limiting abstractions and penalising infringements. The quality of water, however, is hardly monitored and there is growing evidence of excessive amounts of microorganisms, chemicals, and nutrients such as nitrates leaking into water bodies from freely disposed manure and slurry from farms, with domestic supplies having been affected in some areas.  In other places, for example Galicia in northwest Spain, where rainfall is high and water availability perceived as ‘not being an issue’, storage and distribution of water is not widespread beyond main cities.  In this region, water is abstracted from rivers and lakes, with the water being stored and minimally treated by municipalities before distributing to consumers.  In addition, groundwater is freely available to individual households and farms through wells and boreholes, and so small water supplies are very common and are mostly unregulated.   

Despite increasing efforts to sustainably address Nexus challenges around water, energy and food supplies, the current situation in the European water sector points towards increasing water consumption, growing use of small water supplies and water quality deteriorating across Europe.  Thus, having improved integrated techniques to rapidly and simply test small water supplies for pathogens (disease-causing microorganisms) seems a step in the right direction.  Water from small water supplies is used in farming and agriculture, but it is also used for drinking and food preparation in many areas where no other water supply is available.  Furthermore, recent developments in the UK water sector suggest that consumers and businesses are increasingly considering their local small water supplies in place of, or in addition to, their centralised ‘mains water’.  Thus, ensuring that water from small water supplies is safe for consumption is a matter of public health, and regulation needs to be strengthen across Europe and adopted in each member state to go beyond large abstractions and include directives on quantity, quality, monitoring and treatment of small water supplies.

Beddington J. (2009) ‘Food, energy, water and the climate: a perfect storm of global events?’ In Conference presentation given to the Sustainable Development UK Annual Conference, QEII Conference Centre, London, 19 March 2009. See (accessed 11 May 2015).
ENDS (2016) ‘The ENDS Report: New water company to take businesses ‘off-grid’, by Rachel Salvidge, 20 September 2016.  See (accessed 07 Oct 2016).

AQUAVALENS helps to tackle the problem of poor water quality in small water supplies.

Most people living in towns and cities in Europe have water supplied to their houses and apartments through pipes that are owned and managed by large water utilities (water companies).  The quality of their water is assured by the vast resources of these organisations and the expertise of the people who work for them.  But there are also a lot of people who do not get their water from the large companies and who rely on small water systems for their supplies.  Is this a problem?  It should not be, of course, but very often it is.  Small water systems are not under the control of the large water utilities, but are managed by an individual, or a small group of people, who generally do not have the resources or the expertise to maintain a constant supply of safe drinking water.  As a result, gastrointestinal disease is relatively common amongst users of small water supplies.

The AQUAVALENS project is developing methods that can rapidly test water for microorganisms that cause disease.  One of the problems that we have to tackle in the project is how these test, which initially may be technically difficult to do, can be adapted so that they can be used by the owners of small water supplies, or the agencies that are responsible for monitoring the supplies.  If we are successful the owners of the small water supplies will be able to capture information about the quality of the water very quickly and much more frequently than they do now.  This will lead to better management of the systems and safer water for its consumers.  During the project we will be monitoring the health of people supplied by a sample of the small water systems to see if the use of the tests does make a difference.

We shall be working in three countries: Portugal, Serbia and Scotland.  All three countries have a large number of small water supplies in different types of environments, and are regulated in different ways.  The source of the water to these supplies frequently comes from underground, but as you can see from the pictures the location of the sources can be in remote rural regions or in the centre of small towns and villages.  This makes them vulnerable to contamination from different sources. In the rural areas the water can get contaminated by farm livestock and wild animals; in the towns the contamination is more likely to come from humans and domestic animals.  Another task in the AQUAVALENS project is to develop methods that will tell us whether the contamination is from a human or an animal source.


At a meeting in Lisbon this week, the AQUAVALENS team has been hearing about the new tests that have been developed in the early phases of the project.  We are evaluating these methods for use in a number of different situations, and debating the most suitable methods for testing small water supplies.  It is a critical and exciting time for those of us who will be studyi