Safeguarding the UK's water, energy and food resources

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Photo of barren field with isolated plants

Demand for water, energy and food will rise

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is investing £4.5 million to safeguard the UK's water, energy and food security. With the world's population due to grow to eight billion by 2030, humanity is facing a crisis with predictions of increasing demand and shortages of water, energy and food.

Water and energy are needed to produce food; water is required to produce energy and with the advent of biofuels, energy and food are increasingly competing for land. This means that any shortage or disruption of one resource will impact on the other two. This unbreakable link between all the resources is known as the water-energy-food nexus.

This research into the water-energy-food nexus will be conducted by inter-disciplinary groups of scientists based at 19 universities and research institutes to tackle these challenges.

Professor Philip Nelson, Chief Executive of EPSRC said, This is one of the most important challenges facing the human race, and one of the most complex. The uniqueness of these projects comes from studying all three problems together, something that hasn't been done before.

These projects are a great opportunity for scientists with expertise in different disciplines to come together to find solutions.

The three research projects funded through the Living with Environmental Change sandpit will be led by the Universities of Glasgow, Manchester and Southampton with support from STFC's Scientific Computing Department. The projects are studying the nexus within the UK, while recognising the external pressures, so that the expertise and knowledge can be transferred in an international context.

The three projects will:

  • Explore how shocks to the nexus, for example, floods or energy shortages, may help us to improve resilience of the Water Energy and Food nexus – led by the University of Southampton
  • Produce nexus models that describe interdependencies in the nexus systems using case studies in Devon, Oxford and London – led by the University of Glasgow
  • Identify UK examples of existing structures or initiatives with low impact across water, food and energy systems and investigate how the conditions that make them work can apply in other settings – led by the University of Manchester

The three projects in detail are:

Vaccinating the Nexus

Grant EP/N005961/1; awarded £1.6 million. Led by Dr Paul Kemp, Director of EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Sustainable Infrastructure Systems, University of Southampton. Partners: University of Bath, University of Nottingham, UCL (University College London), Aberystwyth University, Loughborough University, HR Wallingford, School of Oriental & African Studies

This project will focus on improving the resilience of water, energy and food systems. It will investigate how nexus 'shocks', such as extreme climatic events that cause flooding or drought, energy shortages, or unsustainable infrastructure development, may help inform the development of more environmentally sustainable and secure systems.

The project will use information collected during the recent flooding on the Somerset Levels to model the potential for alternative flood resistant agricultural systems, including those used to produce bioenergy crops. Further, planning decision support tools will be developed to help develop an environmentally sensitive approach to deliver the UK energy and water infrastructure plan. Although the project will focus on UK case studies it will have international relevance and help develop expertise and capability of global value.

Dr Paul Kemp, University of Southampton, said: Exploitation of any single resource in isolation can have negative impacts on interconnected sectors and more widely on our natural capital. We are facing unprecedented demand on our water, energy and food systems and business as usual is no longer an option.

To ensure future security of supply we need to develop innovative approaches to environmentally sustainable resource management. This can only be achieved by adopting creative interdisciplinary approaches to develop solutions to the complex challenges faced.

Water Energy Food WEFWEBs

EP/N005600/1; awarded £1.4 million. Led by Professor Marian Scott, University of Glasgow. Partners: UCL, Imperial College London, University of Exeter, University of Oxford, Newcastle University, School of Oriental & African Studies, Rothamsted Research.

The WEFWEBs project will examine the data and evidence around the water, energy and food systems (including social, economic, political, institutional and environmental components) and their interactions and dependencies within the local, regional and national scales. The project will use case studies based in Oxford, the Tamar Estuary in Devon and in London to explore the interdependencies.

The project will work with food producers, retailers, utility companies, environmental agencies local authorities and the public to develop together new data and new understandings.

Professor Scott said, The impact of the work will be to improve the sustainability of our society and provide an improved understanding of the consequences of the choices we make as citizens or as a society.

Stepping Up

Grant EP/N00583X/1; awarded £1.4 million. Led by Dr Alice Bows-Larkin, University of Manchester. Partners: Universities of Surrey, Exeter, Abertay Dundee, Glasgow, Loughborough University, Cranfield University and HR Wallingford.

Current food, energy and water systems of provision are locked-in to unsustainable and insecure models characterised by centralised power structures. Faced with increasing resource scarcity and societal inequalities, a changing climate and greenhouse gas targets, there is a need for a step-change to put the UK on a sustainable Water-Energy-Food (WEF) pathway.

Dr Bows-Larkin said: We will look at real examples in the UK of structures or initiatives with low impact across water, food and energy systems. This could be something like a transition town, or an alternative system or network that offers a way of bypassing conventional infrastructures. What we are looking to understand, is if these low impact systems can work in other settings or contexts, or have the potential to make a step-change by operating at different scales.

The project will study what does and doesn't work to explore what constitutes good practice across the EPSRC nexus. Once identified it will model these low-impact systems, to interrogate if and how they could be replicated in other settings - such as a much larger scale, or within a different type of organisation. The study will involve stakeholders' expertise within the modelling to produce data to help with decision-making that can be shared with industry, government and a wider society.

Notes for editors

A sandpit is a residential interactive workshop to drive lateral thinking and radical approaches to address research challenges.

The world population statistics of eight billion people in 2030 are referenced from a press briefing from the Bonn2011 Conference, The Water, Energy and Food Security Nexus.

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

EPSRC is the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. EPSRC invests around £800 million a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via UK Research and Innovation.

STFC Scientific Computing Department

The STFC Scientific Computing Department provides large scale HPC facilities, computing data services and infrastructure at both STFC Daresbury Laboratory and STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. The department also includes world leading experts in a number of scientific fields including computational chemistry, computational engineering, materials science, band theory, computational biology, advanced research computing, atomic and molecular physics, numerical analysis, software engineering, data services, petascale storage, scientific information and scientific computing technology.

University of Southampton

Through world-leading research and enterprise activities, the University of Southampton connects with businesses to create real-world solutions to global issues. Through its educational offering, it works with partners around the world to offer relevant, flexible education, which trains students for jobs not even thought of. This connectivity is what sets Southampton apart from the rest; we make connections and change the world.

University of Glasgow

Founded in 1451, the University of Glasgow is the fourth oldest university in the English-speaking world. Today the University is in the top 1% of the world's universities, with more than 25,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students and an annual research income of more than £181m. Among the University's alumni are the father of economics Adam Smith, Scotland's architect of devolution Donald Dewar and renowned physicist and engineer Lord Kelvin.

The University of Manchester

The University of Manchester, a member of the prestigious Russell Group of British universities, is the largest and most popular university in the UK. It has 20 academic schools and hundreds of specialist research groups undertaking pioneering multi-disciplinary teaching and research of worldwide significance.

The University of Manchester is one of the country's major research institutions, rated fifth in the UK in terms of 'research power' (REF 2014), and has had no fewer than 25 Nobel laureates either work or study there. The University had an annual income of £886 million in 2013/14.

Reference: PN 23-15

Contact Details

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Name: EPSRC Press Office
Telephone: 01793 444404

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Name: Dr Paul Kemp
Organisation: University of Southampton
Telephone: 023 8059 5871

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Name: Professor Marian Scott
Organisation: University of Glasgow

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Name: Dr Alice Bows-Larkin
Organisation: The University of Manchester