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The Q&A: Rabi Mohtar

In this week's Q&A, we interview Rabi Mohtar, Texas A&M University professor as well as founder and director of the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute.

Dr. Rabi Mohtar is a TEES Endowed Professor at Texas AM University, College Station, Texas.

With each issue, Trib+Water brings you an interview with experts on water-related issues. Here is this week's subject:

Rabi Mohtar is a TEES Endowed Professor at Texas A&M University. He is also founder and director of the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute. His research is focused primarily on measuring the relationship between water, energy and food resources in a particular city, state or country — a model often referred to as the Water-Energy-Food Nexus, or WEF Nexus. He analyzes these connections within the constraints of climate change and considering social, political and technological factors. Mohtar created an online tool that seeks to quantify this theory that water, energy and food sources are all linked.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Water: Can you explain the basic principles behind this Water-Energy-Food Nexus and the sorts of things it can show you?

Rabi Mohtar:  The Water-Energy-Food Nexus, I would say, is relatively new to the science and policy worlds. It gets into how the water resources, energy resources and food resources are interconnected. Each of these is a resource that in the past, because we’ve had an abundance of all these resources, we did not really worry about how deficiencies in one of these sectors could impact the others. We had a lot of buffer. As the resources become more scarce and as the competition for these primary resources is increasing among area stakeholders, there is a need for us to start looking at how a water decision impacts energy.

I’ll give you an example. As we increase our energy demand in the next 15 to 20 years, most of our current technologies for energy production, specifically for electricity production, do require water. As long as we factor in our energy portfolio and our water portfolio and our food portfolio, we factor in how these resources impact the other resources and make wise decisions that cut across other disciplines, rather than stay within the discipline.

Texas is a good example of this because we are looking at an increasing water demand for a growing population, for a growing urban population. And an increasing water demand for the energy production, whether it’s hydraulic fracturing or electricity or others, and also we have an increasing demand because of the population growth for local food supply. How do you manage your water when you’ve got lots of competing stakeholders and demands? That’s what the Nexus platform allows us to do. It allows us to look at this resource allocation in a much more holistic way. 

Trib+Water: Could you elaborate on the specific impacts each of those elements has on the other?

Mohtar:  Let's take an example, as I mentioned, first of the water allocation in the state of Texas. ... Globally, the water that is allocated to agriculture is two-thirds. In the state of Texas, depending on the county, it could be more or it could be less. In the urban Houston area, for example, you don’t have competing demand for agriculture as opposed to San Antonio. If you include the ranching that surrounds the city, I would say there is an even three-way split between water that’s going for agriculture and ranching, water that’s going into energy production, and the (water going toward) gas production and the growing urban population.

So how do you manage that growth of the urban city in San Antonio where you’ve got more than one-third of water projected to go toward domestic (use) and you’re projecting with energy production increase pumping water out of the Edwards Aquifer in the San Antonio area and going into hydraulic fracturing for some of the Eagle Ford wells? You’ve also got a community for agricultural advancement that would be also competing. That growth is incredible and that growth needs to be managed with high efficiency and priorities and tradeoffs. 

Trib+Water: What role has this WEF Nexus played in your research? How did this online tool come to be? 

Mohtar:  The answer is twofold. One, we need to first understand what are the key challenges that we have and develop, what we sort as, a high-level hotspot. One hotspot that we talked about is competing with the demand, as we talked about in San Antonio, whether the three sectors are competing equally for that water. This is a hotspot. You go to other areas, and the hotspot could be different. In the Lubbock area, it’s food. There is no energy production in the Lubbock area but water is declining and there is a tradeoff between the projected water demand for agriculture and how much of the dryland agriculture we can maintain in that area.

So hotspots exist in various parts of the country and various parts of the state. The question is, how do you quantify the interlinkages and how do you start prioritizing your water allocation, as an example? You need a tool that first identifies a hotspot and then second, quantifies these interlinkages between the water, energy and food security at a much more detailed level and third, develop a scenario-based approach where you could quantify all of these interactions for a specific scenario and come up with a way to compare these scenarios as you’re projecting the future.

All of a sudden, we’ll be able to look at the impact of your own decisions as compared to the others in a holistic way. So you look at, for example, each scenario that we have for economic indicators, environmental indicators, the social indicators, and you start saying, what is more important to me? Is it important to me to maintain a certain level of job employment and economic growth for the state? Or is it important for me to maintain energy security for the state? Or is it important for me to look at some of the environmental implications that could happen? We are looking at this as a platform in which you quantify these interactions and you develop a smart, science-based way to help you compare and contrast various scenarios moving forward.

Trib+Water: Who can access this tool? What sort of scenarios can they use it to analyze? 

Mohtar: I developed this tool before moving to Texas A&M, so I’ve been working on it for the last many years. It’s online and anybody can use it. You create an account and you can use it. Is it flexible to allow you to do an analysis of your own for any specific problem you have in mind? No. We are working on various applications or various modifications of this tool to expand on the user base for that tool. Even the version that exists today, it’s that idea of this tradeoff and sustainability of future management practices or policies. Everybody can use it. It may not fit your own need, but we are working on a more generic platform that takes into account more cases.  

Trib+Water: You used this tool in one of your 2014 graduate courses to answer the question “How can Texas’ water gap be bridged?” Can you share the findings of that effort and how the students utilized the online tool?  

Mohtar: We are working on that compilation of the results as we speak. The idea there is that solutions are a function of space and time. How do you develop a solution base that works for Lubbock but may not work for Houston? The tool allows us to assess where and when these solutions will be effective, so there is not one solution for the entire state. There are a number of solutions for different areas of the state. And again, we’re finishing up that report in the coming weeks. 

Trib+Water: What about your other research project, where you’re using this tool to look at the hydraulic fracturing industry in Texas? Where does that fit into this nexus? 

Mohtar: We are also in the process of finalizing that report. The idea there is to quantify the impact of hydraulic fracturing on other resources. There are several pieces to this, though. One is the environmental factor, which includes the water footprint and the water use for hydraulic fracturing. (Another) is the economic factor, which is about job creation and the economic revenue for the state. The third would be the social — the safety of roads and air quality issues. We are looking at the holistic view of the transportation, water and hydraulic fracturing nexus and trying to identify zones in which we can reduce the risks and increase the economic quality for the state. 

Trib+Water: What are your long-term goals for this tool? Do you think it could serve as a mechanism for enacting policy changes in these sectors?  

Mohtar:  We would like to have this tool become a catalyst for dialogue between the energy industry, policymakers, the water sector as well as concerned citizens, where they would be in a roundtable dialogue. There would be tradeoffs and there would be discussions, but the tool would provide the analytics and the science for the dialogue between these stakeholders and also engaging the public in this process, which would help align policies with the priorities we have in this state. We are hoping it will not only be published, but also create a platform for these debates and discussions.

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