The role of law in securing resilience of water, energy and food systems




Kaisa Huhta, Antti Belinskij and Niko Soininen*

CLIMATE CHANGE, population growth and economic and technological development are significant challenges for natural resources management. Governing limited resources requires that the interlinkages between natural resource sectors are adequately acknowledged and addressed.

SUCH INTERLINKAGES are particularly clear between the water, energy and food sectors. Agriculture is the largest consumer of global freshwater. Water is also needed, for example, in the production of hydropower and biofuels and in the operation of solar panels. Energy is needed to ensure food production and water services, but some forms of energy production may also decrease land available for agriculture. Hence, decisions concerning one of these sectors do impact the functioning of others.

RESILIENCE REFERS to the ability of a system to adequately prepare for, and to recover from, shocks without losing its capacity to function.[1] It is particularly important for sectors such as water, energy and food. This is because, first, the uninterrupted availability of and access to these resources is irreplaceable to any society. Second, the potential butterfly effects between these sectors further emphasise the importance of safeguarding the functioning of water, energy and food systems.

RESILIENCE HAS a legal dimension. Law can either improve or impede the ability of a system to withstand disturbances and shocks. So how do we recognise a legal framework that improves the resilience of the water-energy-food nexus? First and foremost, the legal framework should adequately acknowledge the vulnerabilities of water, energy and food systems. Secondly, it should recognise interlinkages between these sectors in such a way that prevents a shock in one sector from paralysing the functioning of the others. Finally, a functional and effective legal framework should tackle the different time scales on which the water-energy-food security nexus operates. This means that a legal framework should be equipped to respond to sudden short-term disturbances as well as facilitate the long-term security in these sectors.

WHAT IS also needed is an adequate institutional and jurisdictional setup for co-operation and co-management of the sectors. For example, law governing electricity supply should acknowledge that a disruption will eventually affect food and water supply as well. Furthermore, law should not only facilitate responses to sudden shocks but also include tools to prevent such shocks in the longer term. In the water sector, for example, this would mean clear obligations concerning the investments needed to maintain functioning infrastructures.

THE ROLE of law in establishing and maintaining resilient water, energy and food systems is important but challenging. In an ideal situation, law supports and enhances the resilience of these sectors. However, law can also have the opposite effect if it emphasises predictability in a way that hinders adaptive reactions in shock situations. For example, rigid and static procedural rules may impede flexible and fast reactions to shock situations even if these rules are generally favourable to ensuring legal predictability and non-discriminatory practices. Furthermore, the societal, technical, economic and scientific uncertainties relating to the interlinkages between water, energy and food sectors make it challenging to balance predictability on the one hand and resilience of water, food and energy systems on the other. Nevertheless, the ability of law to maintain the resilience of these systems is a central element in safeguarding the water, energy and food security.

* The blog post is based on two recent articles supported by the Strategic Research Council’s Winland project (No 303628). The articles are:

  • Antti Belinskij, Niko Soininen and Kaisa Huhta, ‘Vesi-, ruoka- ja energiaturvallisuuden oikeudellinen resilienssi’ Ympäristöpolitiikan ja -oikeuden vuosikirja (2017)
  • Antti Belinskij, Kaisa Huhta, Outi Ratamäki and Marko Keskinen, ’International Law and the Water-Energy-Food Security Nexus’ in Peter Saundry (ed.) Food-Energy-Water Nexus (forthcoming 2018).

[1] Walker, Brian, Gunderson, Lance, Kinzig, Ann, Folke, Carl, Carpenter, Steve and Schultz, Lisen, ‘A Handful of Heuristics and Some Propositions for Understanding Resilience in Social-Ecological Systems’, 11 Ecology & Society (2006), p. 14.