Food-Energy-Water Trilemma in Sri Lanka

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SRI LANKA — Water has quickly become a limited fund for resource managers throughout the world. Consequently, this has created a nexus known as the food-energy-water trilemma. Mass production for growing populations, climate change and other various elements means water won’t always be plentiful in an area. Both food and energy rely on water. Resource managers must decide how to divide their supply when it’s low.

The problem has compelled researchers at the Vanderbilt Institute for Energy and Environment in Nashville and Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment to help make that decision easier. Lead author of the study Debra Perrone spent time in rice paddies examining the connection of the food-energy-water trilemma in Sri Lanka. She used a concept known as trade-off frontiers (TFs) and altered it to reflect choices made with regard to water instead of money, which is what the trade-off frontiers are originally used for in economics.

Every choice resource managers make creates a curve with different combinations. That curve is examined when divvying up water. Some determining factors for TFs can even include contamination of water like we have recently seen in Flint. The trade-off comes after resource managers decide where to place their supply. If a manager chooses to use more water toward food instead of energy, they have to import energy from somewhere else and vice versa.

When Perrone began looking for areas to study, she piggybacked off of a larger project in Sri Lanka. The team had already identified collaborators and established working relationships. The country is also fairly self-sufficient and “water resources are variable both in space and time,” which made it a great environment to study. Gathering the data took place over the course of a summer, but the project’s beginnings started a few years prior. The Borgen Project had the opportunity to interview Perrone.

“I started the tradeoff frontier, food-energy-water trilemma in Sri Lanka work about two years prior to graduating in May 2014,” Perrone said. “I used the fall of 2012 to write an NSF EAPSI fellowship to do the work and was awarded the fellowship in the spring of 2014.”

Perrone was able to spend two weeks with the rest of the Vanderbilt team in Sri Lanka at the beginning of the summer. She departed shortly after to the National University of Singapore for orientation as a part of her fellowship and was able to travel back to Sri Lanka to collect more data. The purpose of the study was to establish the model as a useful tool for system-level trade-offs.

An example of a political or social tie, in regards to this particular country, would be the country’s value in self-sufficiency. Sri Lanka’s agricultural policies help promote self-sufficiency of rice, which may be a political strategy rather than a poverty strategy. Historically during drought years, decision makers have given priority to the flagship paddy systems. This was also the case in the study. This might possibly be due to the unstable rice market or gaining independence from British rule in the ’40s.

With that knowledge, the results indicate how people value water as an asset only connected to something else, and studies can then set a course to pricing water. The findings in Perrone’s research of food-energy-water trilemma in Sri Lanka will set a precedent for others to adapt to and practice for their specific needs. The outcome will be different for every region.

“Because of the system set-up, it is important to recognize that this may not be the case everywhere. And this is one of the benefits of the trade-off frontiers,” said Perrone. “The frontier itself shows the most efficient allocation of water.”

Blake Cox

Photo: Flickr

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