Managing water, energy and food security in times of geopolitical turmoil
Despite the current geopolitical turmoil, this year’s COP27 offers a unique opportunity to advance the climate adaptation agenda, particularly in the food and water sectors. Cecilia D’Alessandro, Fabien Tondel and Sanja Terlević argue that to deliver on climate commitments, Europe must reinvigorate its cooperation with Africa and tackle the interconnected challenges of energy, food and water security through coherent policies and a careful balancing of respective strategic interests with climate objectives.
Held in Egypt, this year’s COP27 offers a unique opportunity to advance the climate adaptation agenda, particularly in the food and water sectors. Yet, the climate conference is taking place in a context of geopolitical turmoil that sees developed and emerging economies increasingly competing to secure access to energy and other commodities.
This is intensifying the development of fossil fuel projects and infrastructure in vulnerable regions rich in natural resources, particularly in Africa. While potentially boosting economic growth, these investments shape the climate risks that the energy, food and water sectors will be exposed to in the future and risk hindering the continent’s progress to managing sustainably natural resources and building resilience to climate change.
To mitigate these tensions and deliver on climate commitments, Europe must reinvigorate its cooperation with Africa to tackle the interconnected challenges of energy, food and water security through coherent policies and a careful balancing of respective strategic interests with climate objectives.
Geopolitical disruptions and cascading risks
The Russian war against Ukraine has caused major disruptions globally, with cascading effects across sectors. The energy and food crises, in particular, have laid bare the heavy dependence of the global economy and food system on fossil fuels.
These crises are worsening the socio-economic damage wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, high levels of indebtedness, and the turmoil in capital markets. Almost like a ’perfect storm’, in some regions recently hit by water-related disasters – such as the catastrophic floods in Pakistan and successive droughts in the Horn of Africa – climate change is adding to these stresses pushing local economies and livelihoods to their limits.
While these concomitant crises are particularly acute in developing countries, where resilience to shocks is often low, they also affect vulnerable populations in industrialised countries. Tackling these challenges requires recognising not only the interconnectedness of different sectors – energy, food and water – but also the interdependencies between major economies and low-income, vulnerable countries.
Impacts of major economies on the energy, food and water sectors abroad
The policies of developed countries and large emerging economies, in particular, can exert considerable influence over the energy, food and water sectors in developing countries. Notably, infrastructure and energy are key policy domains having significant unintended effects, as shown in a recent ECDPM study.
For instance, while public support for infrastructure development in developing countries from large economies such as China enables economic growth, it often has adverse effects on land and water resources. It also contributes to climate change, with infrastructure being a major driver of greenhouse gas emissions, and affects the integrity of the natural environment, which in turn often results in increased vulnerability to floods, storm surges and sea-level rise.
State support of major economies to developing countries for fossil fuel extraction, transportation and processing overseas – notably through export credit, reinforced by international private finance – also presents major trade-offs. It contributes to energy security and spurs growth in developing countries, but it also produces greenhouse gas emissions and causes environmental degradation, while often having spillover effects on governance.
It is clear that the foreign policy responses of major economies to the Russian invasion of Ukraine will have far-reaching implications for sustainable development. New strategic and economic interests are most likely going to put more obstacles in the way of international cooperation, particularly for the Paris Agreement.
In addition, the global scramble to secure access to alternative supplies of oil, gas and other commodities following the sanctions against Russian exports, is intensifying the development of fossil fuel projects and infrastructure in regions rich in natural resources. If not properly managed, these developments will cause further damage to land, water and ecosystems.
Trade-offs in the promotion of climate-resilient development in African countries
Those who are seeking new supplies of oil and gas all look to Africa. While African countries with exploitable reserves may benefit economically from this situation, this also risks reinforcing the ‘extractivist’ model of economic relations. It may also fail to benefit underserved populations lacking access to energy on the continent – unless significant investments in domestic infrastructure for energy distribution are made.
The ongoing competition amongst advanced and emerging economies to take advantage of investment opportunities in Africa may help close the infrastructure gap, which is a top priority in the African Union’s Agenda 2063, with its Programme for Infrastructure Development. The continent requires massive investments not only in transport and energy but also in infrastructure for water supply, storage and sanitation, irrigation and food distribution.
Yet, as the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns, today’s infrastructure investment decisions will fundamentally shape the climate risks that the energy, food and water sectors will be exposed to in the future.
The AU infrastructure programme, which aims at a six-fold increase in hydropower capacity across river basins in rich and fragile biomes such as the Congo, the Niger, the Nile and the Zambezi, illustrates this point. Just in the Congo basin, the programme plans to build 35 dams, including a massive one on the Inga waterfalls, a project that has been backed by international partners.
However, the likely increase in water scarcity and river flow variability in the basin, due to climate change, threatens to reduce the productivity of these hydropower projects, while their contribution to deforestation may worsen regional climate variability, water scarcity and the vulnerability of downstream communities.
How the EU can help
While the infrastructure sector is attracting the attention of various international actors, the Global Gateway – EU’s new strategy rivalling China's Belt and Road Initiative – provides an opportunity to support climate-resilient development, especially in least developed countries.
This initiative will be more effective if it delivers infrastructural solutions to the interconnected challenges of energy, food and water security. For example, in Africa, it could support the development of efficient water infrastructure for crop irrigation and aquaculture, while facilitating investments in energy systems to power agri-food processing enterprises and improving cross-border infrastructure to support regional trade.
The Global Gateway will also be more effective if it is compatible with African strategies and contributes to their implementation. The recently adopted AU climate change strategy, which recognises that interlinkages between the water, energy and food sectors are crucial for managing natural resources sustainably and building resilience to climate change, may provide a useful framework for joint policy planning of long-term investments in climate-proof infrastructure.
The rush to seek new gas supplies in Africa and the restarting of coal-fired power plants in Europe have inevitably tarnished the reputation of European partners. Yet, as Europe is already a leading provider of support for the deployment of renewable energies abroad, the resources mobilised by the Global Gateway could invigorate energy cooperation between Europe and Africa. These resources should not only be used to invest in clean energy infrastructure, but also to boost research and innovation capabilities, which will allow local enterprises to develop and market clean and affordable energy technologies for underserved populations.
Finally, European countries and the EU should spend greater diplomatic efforts to engage with other major economies and exchange experiences with promoting policy coherence for development. They should do that not only with G7 countries, especially with reference to the US-led Build Back Better World Partnership, but also with emerging economies and the Arab oil-exporting countries in particular, whose external footprints on natural resources are expanding.
The views are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ECDPM.