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The Crucial Role of Food-Water-Energy Nexus for Future-Proof Urban Development

Opinion October 17, 2023

With factors such as population explosion and migration, including both rural-urban and international movements, more areas will need to be developed to make room for the approximately 7 billion people expected to live in urban areas by 2050.

With improvements in visa and immigration rules offered by various countries, including several in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), an increasing number of people are migrating to different countries, primarily to cities, in pursuit of better livelihoods and end up staying longer, with some making the move permanent.

The cost of urbanization 

Urbanization is not new. In fact, it started accelerating significantly after World War II, with a notable increase in the global urban population share from 30 percent in 1950 to 57 percent in 2021.

Though urbanization spurs innovation and economic prosperity, improves the quality of life, and fosters cultural diversity, it can also have a negative impact – putting pressure on natural resources, resulting in high energy consumption and generating more production of waste and all forms of pollution.

This comes at a time when the world is already facing triple planetary crisis such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution.

What’s more, climate change-induced issues, among the various factors, are also contributing to urbanization and creating a double whammy of challenges. It not only displaces people whose crops fail due to droughts and environmental degradation, impacting their lives and livelihoods, but also spawns increased demand for resources, including food, water, and shelter in urban areas.

Water is life

Among the vital resources bearing the brunt and facing significant challenges posed by urbanization is freshwater – the finite and rapidly shrinking resource of our planet that ensures our health and balance of ecosystems, and the most important element after air for flora and fauna as well as for human survival.

According to the United Nations, only 2.5% of planet’s water is fresh and suitable for drinking, agriculture, and other industrial uses. Alas, with poor management and other factors, including climate change, freshwater resources are under alarming stress, with per-person availability declining to 20% in the past decades.

To put freshwater resources on top of the agenda, World Food Day on 16 October also focuses on water. Themed ‘Water is life, water is food. Leave no one behind’, the day calls for global efforts to manage water more wisely and emphasizes that governments across the world need to design science and evidence-based policies that capitalize on data, innovation and cross-sectoral coordination to better plan and manage water resources. Furthermore, the COP28 next month in Dubai is also dedicating a day to this topic with several events focusing on food, agriculture and water.

Cutting the water footprint

Among other sectors, the agricultural sector consumes about 70% of freshwater globally. Therefore, we must waste no more time to take action at all levels and make this sector as sustainable as possible while ensuring every drop is used wisely and efficiently, particularly in countries in the Middle East and North Africa, the most vulnerable to climate change and already home to some of the hottest and most water-scarce countries in the world. With ever-growing challenges posing a threat to human, animal and plant life on earth, governments, the private sector, and individuals will need to step up efforts to reduce freshwater use and identify as well as scale up innovative solutions that could help reduce freshwater use, especially in the agriculture sector.

Sustainable cities show the way

As freshwater demand and consumption continue to show an upward trend, the sustainable cities concept could be one of the best ways to reduce the use and misuse of freshwater in urban areas. For example, at Sharjah Sustainable City, our focus from day one has been on developing a community that offers high-quality living with minimum impact on the natural environment and meets the highest standards of social, environmental, and economic sustainability.

Over the past two years, we have been cultivating an exceptional and sustainable society that embraces the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, inspiring a low-carbon future and providing practical solutions related to food security, water and energy management, and conservation of natural resources. The city also promotes urban farming and features high-tech agri solutions such as biodomes with vertical farms that produce fresh vegetables for residents and could help save up to 90% of freshwater compared to conventional agriculture. It also boosts local food production and supports the UAE’s food security efforts. The city also treats 100% of its wastewater for landscape irrigation and maximizes recycling to divert waste from landfills.

More efforts needed

Though some countries in the MENA region have made remarkable efforts to reduce freshwater usage, more efforts are needed. This involves implementing effective policies to increase water-use efficiency across all sectors, especially in the agricultural industry, and making urban farming more sustainable and water-efficient. It includes breeding and embracing food and feed crops that are climate-resilient and require minimal freshwater, promoting local agriculture, and building capacities in communities, especially among the youth, to raise awareness about the threats to freshwater and its pivotal role in feeding the world.

By Mr. Yousif Ahmed Al-Mutawa, Chief Executive Officer of Sharjah Sustainable City