Issues & Challenges

The Battery of South East Asia – Chu Thai Hoanh
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The groundwater boom in India, China and elsewhere has been catalyzed by cheap energy. Farm-subsidized diesel fuel and electricity make pumping water economically viable for smallholders. It also leads to unsustainable groundwater use in many areas. As the water tables drop, more energy is needed to pump water. Failure to effectively price water and energy in some regions has led to gross market distortions, over-exploitation of natural resources and wastage. A more holistic approach to natural resource management could address some of these problems.


Demand for hydropower is set to soar over the next few decades as more and more countries expand their economies. Hydropower’s reputation as a ‘carbon neutral’ source of electricity adds to its appeal. Certainly building dams brings many benefits, but there are costs too. A well-sited and well-managed dam can help regulate water supply, generate electricity and provide water for irrigation. However, poor dam planning, implementation and management can lead to many water users losing out. Large dams invariably displace large numbers of people and affect the livelihood opportunities of nearby communities. Large construction projects have frequently led to corrupt practices. Insensitive dam management can seriously affect the water supplies of both upstream and downstream users. Engaging all stakeholders at the early planning stage of dam construction is vital to mitigate the effects of environmental disruption, and to ensure that the benefits of new development are shared equitably.


Biofuel crops have surged in popularity in recent years as worries about energy security and carbon emissions have stimulated demand. However, biofuels take up valuable land and water resources that could be used to grow food. In the United States, for instance, it estimated that it takes 65% more energy to produce 1,000 liters of biofuel ethanol than the energy that is derived from those 1,000 liters. In the current policy environment, however, global enthusiasm for biofuels shows no sign of waning.

Critics are increasingly questioning the green reputation of plant-derived energy sources. The biofuel boom has been blamed for increased deforestation, water shortages and food price hikes. Much more research is needed to assess what contribution biofuels can potentially make to sustainable energy supply.


Irrigated farm systems consistently produce more food than rain-fed systems. However, almost all irrigation systems require energy inputs of some kind. Piped systems need to be pressurized. Canal systems need pumps. On a typical farm in a developed country, irrigation consumes nearly one-fifth of all energy used. Water-energy-food analysis of management regimes will shed new light on the productiveness and sustainability of irrigated systems.