3 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!

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)