5 item(s) found.

The Water-Agriculture Nexus Issue

The Water-Agriculture Nexus Issue

The Magic Nexus team

In this latest publication we tackle governance of the nexus with a focus on water use in agriculture. An overarching theme is that of complexity– one cannot talk about comprehensive and robust agricultural policy without addressing the complexities involved -– including the need to take into consideration multiple factors at different scales, and the uncertainties involved in  administering any given solution to water scarcity challenges.  

In the first article, Violeta Cabello & Ansel Renner from the UAB in Barcelona look at indicators in agricultural water use, explaining why the current monitoring framework in the EU is insufficient to properly understand the links between agriculture and water resource use in Europe.

In our second article, David Romero Manrique from The Joint Research Centre in Italy uses the analogy of the mythological hydra monster to explain the paradoxes inherent in water scarcity governance in the Canary Islands - that is, that without first defining the problems, the wrong solutions can create even worse 'hydra head' problems.

Tackling related issues in the Canary Islands, we summarize the findings of a recent publication from the MAGIC project by Serrano-Tovar and colleagues who use a desalination case study to better understand water scarcity issues in agriculture – their results show that governance solutions are far from simple and require a comprehensive analysis of the multifaceted and complex multi-scalar components involved.

Finally, from our MAGIC team at the University of Twente, Joep Schyns and Arjen Hoekstra define different types of efficiency in agricultural water use, explaining that we need to pay more attention to the consumption angle for policy to really be effective in this area.

Paying due attention to complexity in water governance for agriculture

Paying due attention to complexity in water governance for agriculture

The Magic Nexus team

In a recent publication from the MAGIC project, Serrano-Tovar and colleagues take a closer look at desalination, powered from renewable energy sources, used in water-scarce areas to support agriculture. The case study of reference is a project in the Canary Island of Gran Canaria, an island that depends on fossil fuel and food imports to supply its energy needs and food consumption. The case study reunites all the elements of the nexus: agricultural food production, its related water requirement met through desalination, and the energy required for water desalination. At first glance, the project seems to close the “nexus loop” by solving both the challenge of water supply in an arid region and of powering the desalination plant without fossil fuels. Upon closer inspection, it is far these specific solutions go and the answers that these technologies offer, due to the complexity of the environmental and socio-political problems encountered.

The study focuses on the company Soslaires Canarias S.L., which contributes to the irrigation of up to 230 ha of agricultural land pertaining to farmers of a local agricultural cooperative, which grow mainly fresh vegetables and fruits. The water derived from the desalination plant is stored in a reservoir, which acts as a strategic buffer element that allows for the use of wind energy (an intermittent energy source) by storing desalted water in periods when irrigation is not needed. Farmers have the option of combining the desalted water with other water sources. The water accounting is thus open: water from the desalination plant contributes to water supply to farmers, but does not cover 100% of the water requirement.

Figure: Contextualizing the representation of functional elements in relation to the socio-economic context (top) and environmental context (bottom).

The desalination system is connected to a wind farm, which contributes to the electricity demand of the desalination plant. The extent of this contribution is quite complex: wind power output depends on the strength and intermittency of the wind, which is variable. The wind farm does not provide power at maximum capacity year-round. Moreover, the desalination plant cannot use all the electricity produced by the wind farm at maximum power capacity. Hence, part of the electricity output of the wind farm is sold to the electricity grid and part of the electricity requirement of the desalination plant is obtained from the grid. Energy accounting is also open: the wind farm contributes but does not ensure the viability of the system.

Needless to say, the farmers only provide part of the fruits and vegetables used by the population of Gran Canaria. Therefore, the food flow is also open. In this case, the authors note that food production should be understood not only as contributing to food supply, but also as an economic activity that warrants access to the subsidies of the Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union, especially when food crops are exported to other EU countries. The food flow acquires interest in economic terms, more than with regard to its contribution to food security.

Overall, although the integrated wind farm-desalination-farming system seems to tie in the various components of the water-energy-food nexus, the analysis shows that many loose ends appear through this nexus system. The challenge is not just a matter of missing data or insufficient models. As the authors argue, “the analysis of the resource nexus is extremely complex and requires the consideration of many factors and functional elements operating at different scales. This makes it impossible to adopt simple standard models (of the type ‘one size fits all’) that identify ‘optimal’ solutions and eliminate uncertainty from the results.” In other words, the nexus presents some irreducible uncertainties. Uncertainties suggest that there are limits to the governability of “nexus solutions”.



Serrano-Tovar, T., Suárez, B. P., Musicki, A., Juan, A., Cabello, V., & Giampietro, M. (2019). Structuring an integrated water-energy-food nexus assessment of a local wind energy desalination system for irrigation. Science of the Total Environment, 689, 945-957. Available in OPEN ACCESS!

Coupled monitoring of water and agricultural policies: The challenge of indicators

Coupled monitoring of water and agricultural policies: The challenge of indicators

Violeta Cabello & Ansel Renner

The integration of European water and agricultural policies is the subject of a long lasting debate. Within that debate, the importance of agriculture as the main driver of impacts on water bodies has been formally considered since the approval of the Water Framework Directive in the year 2000. Only recently, however, has the European Commission (EC) promoted alignment of water and agricultural policies in its Rural Development Programmes. One important step in that promotion was the creation of a joint working group between the Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development and the Directorate-General for the Environment – a working group tasked with steering integration of the two policy domains (EC, 2017). Currently promoted strategies focus primarily on the optimization of contemporary water and agrochemical use practices at the farm level (Rouillard and Berglund, 2017). In the light of on-going experiments, how to better harmonize water and agricultural policies, what concepts and instruments to use in that harmonization and at what governance levels are questions that will be addressed in the years to come.

One policy instrument that merits more attention in the ongoing policy discussion is the coupling of monitoring systems. Monitoring is the process by which the implementation of policies is followed up and evaluated, usually through a set of quantitative criteria and indicators. Indeed, indicators are the main tool used by the European Commission in their assessments, partially because they enable the bottom-up aggregation of information from the scale of implementation up through to the continental level. Both water and agricultural policies have innovated in their monitoring systems by developing varied sets of indicators and measurement procedures. Yet, these systems are not integrated. The recent Common Agricultural Policy monitoring and evaluation framework includes indicators on water quality and availability, but those indicators refer to the national scale and lack any connection with the monitoring efforts associated with the Water Framework Directive. Therefore, by looking at the set of numbers provided, it is impossible to know why and how agriculture impacts water resources in Europe. In a previous article of The Nexus Times, Völker and Kovacic caution against the performative role of numbers in evaluating progress towards policy targets. That is, the way indicators are conceived has an effect in the way policy goals themselves are perceived. Once measurement procedures are established, Völker and Kovacic argue, they become more rigid and difficult to change. Therefore, it is pertinent to ask now what indicators and accounting procedures are relevant and needed in the process of harmonization of water and agricultural policies.

As part of the MAGIC project, we are prototyping a coupled water-food accounting system that connects farming system typologies to the water bodies they depend on. The following data dashboard shows an integrated set of environmental and socio-economic indicators using data from the province of Almería in southeastern Spain. In our prototype, we focussed on quantitative impacts on aquifers and diagnosed social-ecological patterns in the year 2015. That is, we explored and relayed crucial information over what farming systems are driving the various levels of aquifer overexploitation.

Figure 1 – An example of an integrated monitoring system of water and agricultural policies for the region of Almería in Southern Spain. Source: Cabello et al. 2019.

During our research, we learnt that it is key to both monitor impacts in relative and absolute terms and to place environmental pressures such as water withdrawal and fertilizer leakage in the context of their wider eco-hydrological system. For instance, in the analyses of indicators in Figure 1 we observed that high overdraft rates were observed in both high-volume and low-volume aquifers. While low aquifer recharge rates were a major driving factor, we also learnt that similar levels of aquifer impact can be driven by various mixes of agricultural system types each with different production and market strategies. Attending to social-ecological diversity, such as that provided by mixes of agricultural system types, appears as a key challenge for future policy reviews and integration efforts. Current efforts are bogged down by sparse agricultural data defined at relatively aggregate scales, an aspect which creates difficulty as far as integration with water data goes. Difficulties aside, the integration of water and agricultural policies is an urgent task highly relevant for the future health of the European environment. Moving forward, the advancement of a coupled monitoring system between water and agricultural policies will require public administrations to make a serious effort to produce coherent databases.



Cabello, V., Renner, A., Giampietro, M., 2019. Relational analysis of the resource nexus in arid land crop production. Advances in Water Resources 130, 258–269. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.advwatres.2019.06.014

European Commission. 2017. Agriculture and Sustainable Water Management in the EU. COMMISSION STAFF WORKING DOCUMENT. Available at: https://circabc.europa.eu/sd/a/abff972e-203a-4b4e-b42e-a0f291d3fdf9/SWD_2017_EN_V4_P1_885057.pdf

Rouillard, J., Berglum, M. 2017. European level report: Key descriptive statistics on the consideration of water issues in the Rural Development Programmes 2014-2020. Report to the European Commision. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/environment/water/pdf/EU_overview_report_RDPs.pdf

The Hydra and Hydro-Governance in Tenerife: who defines the problems and who proposes the solutions?

The Hydra and Hydro-Governance in Tenerife: who defines the problems and who proposes the solutions?

David Romero Manrique

In Greek mythology, the Hydra was a giant aquatic monster with numerous heads. If one of the Hydra's heads was cut off, two more would grow back in its place. So essentially trying to fix one problem made that problem worse. The lesson to be learnt in this case is to properly understand the problem in order to find the most effective solution. Water governance is similar in that the framing and identification of the issues is a crucial step for effective policy-making, i.e. policies that change (unsustainable) business-as-usual practices. Defining the solutions before properly defining the problems will not only fail to solve the root issues of concern (Type II error), but will also lead to additional problems.

Alternative water sources, namely reclaimed and desalinated water, have emerged as technologically reliable sources of water to face drought and scarcity(ies) in many regions worldwide (De López et al., 2011; March et al., 2014; Bichai et al., 2018). Drought is mostly related to physical and meteorological variables (Van Loon & Laaha, 2015) while scarcity is basically related to situations where water consumption exceeds water availability (Postel, 2014).

In order to face scarcity, the EU has recently launched a Communication on minimum requirements for water reuse with “the objective of alleviating water scarcity across the EU (…)”.

According to this COM, the problem is essentially framed as the over-abstraction of natural water resources – scarcity – and the proposed solution is to increase water availability – reuse. In the European broad policy context, the proposal might seem logically coherent, but at smaller scales we could inadvertently gain many Hydra heads. 

In Tenerife (one of the Canary Islands), the MAGIC Project team explored narratives surrounding the implementation of water reuse technologies with a wide range of social actors. Here, the main natural sources of water have been both surface and groundwater. Part of the rain water is collected in dams, ponds and other deposits, while the groundwater comes from aquifers historically extracted through privately owned artificial galleries and wells. In Tenerife, 87% of the total water consumption comes from aquifers. Hence, private water owners provide almost 90% of the total water consumption of an island with almost 1 million inhabitants and 2.5 million tourists per year. Water scarcity due to aquifer depletion is the official institutional discourse behind the development of industrial waters. But is water scarcity a narrative that supports vested interests? Is this a social construct? Are scientific models supporting this perspective? After undertaking our interviews we revealed different perspectives:

  • In the Tenerife Hydrological Plan, no area of the island of Tenerife has been declared by the Tenerife Water Council (water governance body) as over-exploited, which seems contradictory to the clear hymn to the scarcity discourse which is: a) there is water scarcity in the island: aquifers and other resources are overexploited by human pressure; and b) the lack of water is due to climatic factors: droughts, climate change, etc.
  • Other actors uphold that the status of aquifer overexploitation is surrounded by uncertainty sustaining that existing models are useless.
  • Finally, other actors suggest that the lack of water is caused by inefficient management of the existing resources (water leaks and losses, poor water quality, etc.).

The unclear problem definition gets more complicated with the identification of other tensions: high energy costs of water consumption and production; health risks; eutrophication; soils degradation and pollution.

The interviews indicate that the main beneficiaries of water reuse for irrigation will be farmers. But the abandonment of agricultural lands in the island seems related to socio-economic factors rather than water scarcity: subsidies, external competence, or the lack of intergenerational succession and knowledge. So, what are alternative water sources resolving really? Specifically, are agricultural issues faced by farmers diminishing, and should we be placing our focus elsewhere to benefit other actors or the environment?

Too many “un-definitions” require a debate to collectively evaluate the plausibility of contrasting narratives, because in environmental governance, framing is the condition sine qua no, to avoid multiplication of Hydra heads. 



Bichai, F., Grindle, A. K., & Murthy, S. L. (2018). Addressing barriers in the water-recycling innovation system to reach water security in arid countries. Journal of Cleaner Production, 171, S97-S109.

De Lopez, T. T., Elliott, M., Armstrong, A., & Lobuglio, J. (2011). Technologies for climate change adaptation-the water sector.

March, H., Saurí, D., & Rico-Amorós, A. M. (2014). The end of scarcity? Water desalination as the new cornucopia for Mediterranean Spain. Journal of Hydrology, 519, 2642-2651.

Postel, S. (2014). The last oasis: facing water scarcity. Routledge.

Van Loon, A. F., & Laaha, G. (2015). Hydrological drought severity explained by climate and catchment characteristics. Journal of Hydrology, 526, 3-14.

Proposal for a REGULATION OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL on minimum requirements for water reuse. COM/2018/337 final - 2018/0169 (COD). https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:52018PC0337

Plan Hidrológico de Tenerife, Sección IV Protección del dominio público hidráulico subterráneo, Art. 264º Zonas sobreexplotadas (NAD)

Multiple perspectives on the water-use efficiency of food production

Multiple perspectives on the water-use efficiency of food production

Joep Schyns and Arjen Hoekstra

Due to increasing pressure on Europe’s freshwater resources, driven by changing climatic conditions, population growth, and shifting dietary and energy patterns, the interest in water-use efficiency is enormous. Especially water-use efficiency in agriculture is a hot topic, since agriculture uses around 40% of the all water abstracted from Europe’s groundwater and surface water resources on an annual basis (EEA, 2018).

There are three perspectives on water-use efficiency (Hoekstra, 2020). From the production perspective, we can address the question of how to produce a given crop with less water. From the geographic perspective on water-use efficiency, we can ask the question of where we can best produce what from a water point of view. Lastly, from the consumption perspective we can pose the question of how to best fulfil certain consumer needs with less water. The consumer perspective thus addresses the issue of demand and questions what actually is produced.

Nearly all attention and advancements around water-use efficiency in agriculture have focused on the production perspective. Food cannot be grown without water, because transpiration by plants is an essential element of plant growth. Strategies to increase crop water productivity therefore should aim at reducing the non-beneficial part of evapotranspiration from a crop field, which includes water evaporated during the application of irrigation water to the field and the water that evaporates from the bare soil and the leaves without contributing to biomass growth. This can be achieved by specific forms of tillage and mulching of the soil, or by installing more efficient irrigation systems (Chukalla et al., 2015). The replacement of sprinkler by drip irrigation systems in arid regions such as the Segura basin in Spain is a good example of the latter (Aldaya et al., 2019). In addition, since water productivity is a function of water use and crop yield, increasing yields by adopting good agricultural practices and optimal crop cultivars is an effective way to enhance water-use efficiency in agriculture. Such yield improvements have largely contributed to improved crop water productivity in Europe, especially in the past century.

The risk of solely focusing on the production perspective of water-use efficiency is that we end up producing the wrong crops in Europe most efficiently. Think of efficient large-scale production of water-demanding almonds, olives, tomatoes and fruits in Southern Europe for export. When we take the geographic perspective, we will look where we can best produce certain crops from a water point of view. Several local and global studies have shown that significant water savings can be achieved, maintaining current production levels, if crops would be produced in different places than they are at the moment (Davis et al., 2017a;b).

When we consider the water-use efficiency of food from a consumption perspective, we look at how we can fulfil the food needs of European consumers with less water. This can be done by changing our dietary patterns, particularly by replacing meat and dairy by suitable plant alternatives, maintaining the same nutritional value but reducing the water footprint per kilocalorie or per gram of protein. Food consumption patterns and associated water footprints largely vary across the North, South, East and West of Europe, but in all regions substantial water savings can be achieved by adopting diets according to regional health standards, and even more when meat and dairy products are replaced by nutritionally equivalent plant-based alternatives (Vanham et al., 2013).

Talking about changing production and especially consumption patterns is way more difficult than implementing best practices in the current agro-food system. Yet solutions from all perspectives on water-use efficiency will be required to tackle the nexus challenge of sufficient and nutritious food for all Europeans while sustainably managing Europe’s freshwater resources. To achieve sustainable water use, we need to reduce overall water consumption in all those catchments where overdraft currently affects local ecosystems and biodiversity, which particularly occurs in Southern Europe, and reduce the water pollution as a result of excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides, which happens throughout Europe. Better agricultural practices, smarter choices on what to produce where, and adjustments in diets are all essential elements of the solution. Finally, given that forty percent of Europe’s water footprint lies outside Europe (Hoekstra, 2011), we need to consider and reduce the external environmental impacts of Europe’s food consumption as well.



Aldaya, M.M., Custodio, E., Llamas, R., Fernández, M.F., García, J. & Ródenas, M.A. (2019) An academic analysis with recommendations for water management and planning at the basin scale: A review of water planning in the Segura River Basin, Science of the Total Environment, 662: 755-768.

Chukalla, A.D., Krol , M.S. & Hoekstra, A.Y. (2015) Green and blue water footprint reduction in irrigated agriculture: Effect of irrigation techniques, irrigation strategies and mulching, Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, 19(12): 4877-4891.

EEA (2018) EEA Environmental indicator report 2018, available online: https://www.eea.europa.eu/airs/2018.

Hoekstra, A.Y. (2011) How sustainable is Europe’s water footprint? Water and Wastewater International, 26(2): 24-26.

Hoekstra, A.Y. (2020) The water footprint of modern consumer society: second edition, Routledge, London, UK. https://www.routledge.com/The-Water-Footprint-of-Modern-Consumer-Society/Hoekstra/p/book/9781138354784

Davis K.F., Seveso A, Rulli M.C. & D’Odorico P (2017a) Water savings of crop redistribution in the United States. Water, 9(2): 83.

Davis K.F., Rulli M.C., Seveso A. & D’Odorico P. (2017b) Increased food production and reduced water use through optimized crop distribution, Nature Geoscience 10: 919–92.

Vanham, D., Hoekstra, A.Y. & Bidoglio, G. (2013) Potential water saving through changes in European diets, Environment International, 61: 45-56.