Anjuli Jain Figueroa’s Research Showcase: Linking food, water and energy in the rapidly urbanizing city of Pune, India

The Nexus

As cities experience rapid economic growth they often demand more resources, including food, water, and energy.  Urbanization transforms the neighboring lands, often displacing agricultural lands, and consequently requiring more food production on less land to satisfy the growing and changing urban needs. The availability of water influences how much a city or crop can grow, yet land use also dictates when and how much water reaches rivers and aquifers. These types of linked feedback loops are the core of the food-water-energy nexus and are crucial to understanding open questions including: 

  • How will the water cycle respond to changes in land use? 
  • How will farmers and city-dwellers adapt to changes in water availability?
  • How will land use change over time/in response to water and climate change?

These questions build upon both my academic (bachelor’s in civil and environmental engineering from University of Michigan, a master’s in technology and public policy from MIT, and doctorate in Civil and Environmental engineering from MIT) and professional (as a water resources engineer helping municipalities with issues related to water and wastewater) backgrounds, which combine technical an policy aspects. With this background and these experiences, my interest lies in the interactions between the built and natural environment. This interest has brought me to Stanford, where I am currently a postdoc working on the Food-Water-Energy for Urban Sustainable Environments (FUSE) project to investigate the changes to food, water, and energy demands driven by urbanization and climate change. 

Natural and Built World

It is sometimes easy to overlook that our human built world and cities are completely intertwined with the natural environment, and that this coupling can have effects on the quality of life. These are three examples that we work on in FUSE: 

  • Flooding, irrigation, and drinking water supply are controlled by dams and reservoir operations that are sometimes motivated by the economics of irrigated crops.
  • Poor water distribution infrastructure, riddled with leaks, exacerbated by water theft leads to expensive adaptations including excessive water withdrawals from aquifers and distribution by trucks.
  • People’s access to groundwater is dependent on well depth infrastructure and consumption is enhanced by pump type and access to electricity.

These and many others are the types of interactions we seek to model and understand.

Interdisciplinary Teams

A key aspect of the project is its interdisciplinary nature. This project brings together researchers from many different fields including economists, hydrologists, climate scientists, social scientists, engineers, and geographers. These scientific interactions outside of my field are exciting and lead to new ideas as we explore the complexities of the system. Team-based interdisciplinary scientific research is becoming the norm and despite some barriers, I think it is changing the way science is conducted.

In this collaborative setting each researcher creates a model component (or module) that encompasses the dynamics of their sector (e.g., agriculture, water, economics, and energy). My role is to integrate these various modules with the most important nexus links.  The choice of these links was based on the stakeholder engagement through living labs, where government officials, NGO’s, local scientists, and citizens describe the main challenges they believe our living lab of Pune, India faces. Pune was chosen as the case study because it represents a fast-growing city that is not yet a mega-city (>10M) like Delhi. It also receives moderate rainfall and has a semi-arid climate, unlike the drier arid northern region. Thus, Pune is ideal to study whether urbanization and climate change will move it towards resource scarcity. To convert those challenges to model components requires thinking about the big picture to keep the interconnected nature of the nexus. Familiarity with the nuts and bolts is needed in order to couple the modules and enable their communication. The combination of strategic thinking and attention to detail will help make the model successful so it can be delivered back to the stakeholders who are interested in understanding sustainable development pathways. We hope the project will be able to inform local decision-makers.

Future plans

The drive to attain a sustainable future and create a balanced equilibrium between the built and natural environment motivates my research. It is policy-relevant and applied research. I also have a strong interest in education and outreach, creating curriculum and videos to better communicate science. In my next steps I want to continue learning and teaching about the connections between different sectors (food, water, and energy) including the links between the policy and science related to these domains. 

By: Anjuli Jain Figueroa

PostDoctoral Research Fellow

Stanford University

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