Globally, about a billion people—frequently from minority, low-income and Indigenous populations—have difficulty accessing enough food, or the energy needed to power their homes and businesses. Another 2 billion struggle with shortages of safe water. All these problems are worsening as the world heats up and its population expands.
The tangled nature of all this is the driving insight for a team of researchers at University of Maryland, with partners spanning the globe. Backed by a three-year, $3 million Grand Challenges Institutional Grant, the “Global FEWture Alliance” will pursue solutions to some of humanity’s most complex problems arising at what the team calls the food-energy-water (FEW) nexus.
“In the past, groups taking on these issues were frequently very siloed and discipline-specific,” said Amy Sapkota, principal investigator for the grant, MPower Professor of environmental health, director of the CONSERVE Center of Excellence and interim director of the Maryland Institute of Applied Environmental Health (MIAEH). “None of these problems are going to be solved without a holistic, interdisciplinary, systems-based approach. We’re bringing together diverse disciplines to develop and implement technology-based and policy solutions that address all three areas of the FEW nexus.”
Consider water-energy relationships, Sapkota said: Energy is needed to pump, treat and distribute water, while abundant supplies of water are needed for the majority of energy production processes. Meanwhile, water and food intersect because agriculture is the greatest user of freshwater globally, as well as the single biggest polluter of water systems.
She cited a crisis in Gujarat, India as an example of how narrowly imagined fixes might actually create more problems—even causing an environmental collapse: Heavily subsidized electricity made unlimited irrigation cheap, resulting in a cornucopia of crops until groundwater supplies gave out.
The Global FEWture Alliance Team’s perspective and expertise is broad, including researchers and practitioners in public health, agriculture, civil and environmental engineering, green energy, environmental finance, food safety and atmospheric science who hail from six colleges and schools across campus.
The team stretches far beyond campus as well: In Israel, which has overcome grave water availability issues and has become a global leader in desalination, wastewater treatment and reuse, partners hail from Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and CultivAid, an agricultural nonprofit operating in both Israel and East Africa. In Tanzania, the team will work with communities and leaders focused on introducing sustainable agriculture and water treatment systems that can weather the challenges of climate change, promote economic growth and improve nutrition.
“There is really no other choice than to move toward irrigation to cope with the effects of changing climate on crops,” said Tomer Malchi, executive director of CultivAid. “So we’re introducing pressurized irrigation and protected agriculture wherever we go—but to have the pressure, you need to have power”—which requires an approach that addresses water, energy and the entire food system.
In Nepal, the Global FEWture Alliance has joined with researchers at Kathmandu University and Sanskriti Farms and Research Center to address water shortages related to insufficient snow melts, or more precipitation falling as rain due to climate change impacts on the monsoon season.
On a recent trip to Nepal, project co-principal investigator Rianna Murray Ph.D. ’19, assistant research professor and graduate director in MIAEH, got an up-close look at the country’s plight after witnessing an awe-inspiring sunrise at the top of a Himalayan mountain range. Then her guide said, “‘If you notice the ground we’re standing on, 20 years ago, this used to be covered in snow,’ and we all looked down, and the ground was just brown dirt.” The reduction in snowmelt impacts water supplies of villages in lower regions of the mountain range, she said.
To weather the changing conditions, the team’s partners in Nepal have so far built more than 200 ponds to capture rainwater during the monsoon season to support agriculture after the rains stop, said Murray, who leads her own Grand Challenges Team Project Grant, the Maryland Safe Drinking WATER Study, and will co-lead the experiential graduate education programs of the Global FEWture Alliance.
“I’m so happy that we’re going to involve students at every level of this project, whether it's here at home in Maryland, or at our research and capacity building sites abroad,” she said.
One of the Maryland projects gives a taste of what the Global FEWture Alliance’s system-based, holistic solutions could look like. In the city of Westminster, where droughts have threatened the source water supplying the city’s drinking water treatment plant, leaders are introducing a highly advanced membrane-based system to treat municipal wastewater, which will then be mixed together with reservoir water to feed the drinking water plant, Sapkota said. But this new technology is highly energy-intensive and could result in additional energy costs that are not easily met.
“Moving forward, we aim to work with the city of Westminster to secure funding to bring in renewable energy supplies that can meet these power needs, creating a sustainable system that doesn’t result in other problems,” Sapkota said. “We can’t view these challenges in isolation and hope to solve them.”