IUCN helps to identify complex links between bioenergy and water

IUCN contributed to a UNEP-led report exploring the links between bioenergy and water, which was launched at the World Water Forum this week. IUCN emphasised the role of environmental flows in managing potential trade-offs with other users including biofuel producers.

Biofuels in a laboratory, La Jolla, United States Photo: Steve Jurvetson

Renewable, sustainable sources of energy are an essential part of the transition to a low carbon, resource-efficient Green Economy. All forms of energy have, to a greater or lesser extent, an impact on water resources, and the relation between water and bioenergy (renewable energy derived from organic materials such as wood, biomass or agricultural by-products) is particularly complex.

This report finds that bioenergy’s water demands are in large part linked with the cultivation and processing of feedstocks, such as crops, which in turn have important implications for sustainable agriculture, land use and food production.

In a world where more than 70 percent of global freshwater is used for agriculture, the report says bioenergy development needs to be carefully planned to avoid it adding to existing pressures. This planning needs to reflect the increasing and competing needs for the same raw materials for uses such as food, animal fodder and fibre as the world’s population climbs to an expected nine billion by mid-century. In some cases, these considerations may argue against bioenergy development.

However, the report outlines circumstances in which well-planned bioenergy development can improve agricultural practices, including promoting water efficiency and sustainable fertilizer use, and even improve access to water, thanks to water pumping and cleaning powered by bioenergy, and food security in the case of combined food-bioenergy production systems.
The report’s recommendations include:

  • Taking a holistic approach and a long-term perspective – Consider the context to identify the best use for water. There is no “one size fits all” approach. Apply a life-cycle approach, consider inter-relationships with other resource needs, and take into account the whole watershed.
  • Base decisions on impact assessments to ensure sustainable water management – Analyse bioenergy systems from a comprehensive socio-ecological perspective. Promote sustainable land and water use.
  • Design and implement effective water-related policies – These should cover feedstock production and energy conversion and monitor competition between sectoral uses of water. 
  • Promote technology development – New technologies may help relieve pressure on water resources, but they will need a due diligence check before deployment.
  • Conduct further research, fill data gaps, and develop regionalized tools – Support international cooperation in research on bioenergy-related water impacts; address emerging and largely unexplored issues such as the potential and risks of coastal zones/microalgae, land-based microalgae and genetically modified organisms; monitoring needs to be done on a regular basis to fill data gaps and check compliance with regulations and sustainable production; Life Cycle Impact Assessment and water footprints are inadequate without regional tools that assess localized impacts.
Work area: 
Go to top