Costa Rica is known as a verdant, tropical paradise with rich rainforests, abundant wildlife, striking mountains and volcanoes, and picturesque beaches. However, the perceived abundance of Costa Rica’s water resources is only true for part of the country. The same geography and climate that bring abundant precipitation to most of southern Costa Rica and its Caribbean coast also leave the northern Pacific province of Guanacaste with substantially less rainfall and even periods of severe drought. This case study focuses on Guanacaste province, which is a major tourist destination as well as one of the country’s most productive agricultural regions. Water from the lush Caribbean slopes of the Lake Arenal region is transported across the continental divide through extensive infrastructure projects. Passing through the semi-arid regions of Guanacaste, hydroelectric power generation, extensive irrigated agriculture, and tourism development use most of the water, supporting a rapidly growing regional economy but leaving increasingly less water for environmental flows. This case study introduces students to “nexus thinking” to explore the multiple and overlapping water, energy, and food (WEF) demands and ecological challenges present in Guanacaste province. Each sector and its interconnections with other sectors are examined in turn through introductory lectures, and enriched by WEF systems thinking activities and class discussions. At the conclusion of this case study curriculum, students will be able to identify and characterize points of intersection, i.e., the nexus, of WEF supply and demand, and trade-offs that exist between WEF resources and biodiversity conservation.

INTRODUCTION

Recent simultaneous droughts and shocks to global food and energy prices highlighted the interdependencies, or nexus, among water, energy, and food (WEF) resources [13]. These interdependencies have become an area of rapidly growing research interest [4, 5], yet attention and innovation in WEF nexus pedagogy are lagging [6, 7]. Furthermore, issues related to impacts from WEF resource use on environmental conditions, particularly ecological dependence on surface water availability, are not yet fully integrated with WEF nexus research or pedagogy [810]. Doing so presents the opportunity to engage a wider range of researchers and students in WEF nexus topics.

Water is at the center of this nexus, yet our understanding of its interconnections among food, energy, and ecosystems is limited [11]. The complexity of the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of water resources presents one of the greatest management challenges facing humanity [12]. Equally concerning is the current lack of water resources literacy across all levels of society. A survey of U.S. adults [13] found that <10% of respondents could estimate the percentage of drinkable water on Earth, <25% could identify groundwater as part of the water cycle, and <33% could accurately identify agriculture as the dominant water user worldwide [14]. A related concern that has long been cited by the researchers and educators alike is the dominance of reductionist, or “siloed,” thinking applied to complex systems, which leads to unexpected or unintended consequences when applied in resource management decisions. For example, dam operations have long prioritized water allocation through a narrow lens of power generation, flood protection, and/or municipal water supply, while failing to consider trade-offs with societal and environmental benefits of healthy surface water-dependent ecosystems [15, 16]. Even within the growing WEF nexus, research community substantive progress toward interdisciplinary science and societal engagements has been slow [12]. Postsecondary education can play a central role in improving water resources literacy and training the next generation of citizens in nexus thinking.

The WEF nexus is both a specific way to conceptualized water, energy, and food systems and their interconnections and a way of thinking about and quantifying trade-offs among WEF system components. A wide variety of conceptual frameworks and analytical approaches to the WEF nexus exist with the ultimate operationalization typically depending on a disciplinary perspective [17]. However, the WEF nexus is fundamentally about how each resource system supplies or imposes demands on the other. For example, the “water for food” and “water for energy” perspectives examine direct use of water in food (e.g., irrigation) and energy (e.g., thermoelectric power generation cooling and hydropower) production, respectively. “Energy for food” examines on-farm (e.g., groundwater pumping) and off-farm (e.g., transportation) energy consumption in food production, and “energy for water” links energy consumption for water supply activities (e.g., water treatment and inter-basin water transfers). “Food as energy” typically focuses on the potential land and water competition between biofuel and food crop cultivation, and “food as water” examines the embedded water use (i.e., “virtual water”) in the production of food commodity crops exchanged among producing and consuming regions. In addition, the concept of environmental flows intersects with the aforementioned surface water demands as a competing use to maintain hydrological and biological functions of aquatic ecosystems [15, 18]. Comprehensive reviews of each of the WEF systems and their interlinkages can be found in Bazilian et al. [1], D’Odorico et al. [19], Jones et al. [17], McCarl et al. [4], and McCarl et al. [5].

This article describes a case study of WEF nexus and environmental flow issues set in Guanacaste Province, Costa Rica, and specifically in the Tempisque River basin, Costa Rica’s largest watershed. This case study was presented as part of a University of Alabama study abroad course offered in the spring of 2019 in cooperation with and hosted by Texas A&M’s Soltis Center for Research and Education (http://soltiscentercostarica.tamu.edu/). The purpose of this article is to provide an example of integrated quantitative and qualitative classroom activities for investigating WEF nexus and environmental flow issues presented with a case study approach. We provide detailed case study background materials, teaching notes to support classroom activities and discussions, assessment of students’ learning, and reflections about WEF nexus pedagogy using the case study approach. Our goal is to provide a framework for teaching and empowering students to address WEF nexus issues with a concrete case study curriculum.

COURSE OVERVIEW

Enrollment in the course was limited due to the constraints of study abroad programs. Total enrollment was eight students, four of which were majoring in environmental sciences, two in marine conservation, one in anthropology, and one in math. Before the presentation of the case study curriculum described in detail below, the students were given 30 h of instruction (18 h in lecture, 12 h in the laboratory) on fundamental concepts of the water cycle, descriptions of storage and flows within each phase of the water cycle, and basic watershed delineation and hydrology. The case study portion of the course was delivered through the combination of classroom lectures and a two-day field trip to Guanacaste Province (not required for case study). Classroom activities and lectures occupied on average 5 h a day over 4 days. The course was administrated by two instructors and used teachings facilities from Texas A&M University’s Soltis Center for Research and Education in San Isidro, Alajuela, Costa Rica. Consistent with a 200-level undergraduate class, the curriculum was presented at a survey level intended to provide a high-level overview of each topic. If the WEF nexus case study curriculum will be incorporated into an upper-level undergraduate class, then such background knowledge could be designated as a course prerequisite, but including the material as a primer in a lower-level undergraduate class can also work well. The WEF nexus case study portion of the course was divided into an introductory section providing background on systems thinking, life cycle assessment (LCA), and general WEF nexus topics, and subsequent modules focused on WEF sub-system linkages (e.g., “water for energy,” “food as energy,” “environmental flows,” etc.). A combination of topical lectures, background readings, interactive activities, and individual and group reflective exercises was used to present the case study curriculum, which culminated in a policy brief final project (see Teaching Notes in the Supplementary Materials for detailed activity descriptions, links to content, and instructions to students).

Systems Mapping Exercises

The case study curriculum begins with an introduction to systems thinking. The goal of this module is to shift students’ thinking away from familiar topic-based thinking to a problem-based orientation that emphasizes relational thinking among system components. First, an introductory lecture provided an overview of WEF systems, a few general conceptual models (see “Water-Energy-Food Nexus.ppt” in Supplementary Material), and a description of the main sub-system interdependencies. Next, a primer was offered on systems concepts, such as interconnectedness and feedback loops, and systems methodologies, such as LCA and systems dynamics modeling. This knowledge was then applied through two interactive system mapping activities adapted from Leyla Acaroglu’s Disruptive Design blog post “Tools for Systems Thinkers: Systems Mapping.” The first activity was the development of a cluster map. Cluster mapping is essentially a free association exercise centered on a focal topic—in this case, the WEF nexus broadly. Working collaboratively as a class, students simultaneously introduced individual WEF system components to the class cluster map as nodes and interactively added connections among their peers’ and their own nodes. After a period of collaborative brainstorming with the cluster map to bring out as many systems components and linkages as possible, class discussion followed providing a space for group reflection and identification of any missing linkages. A series of prompts were used to facilitate reflection, such as “What WEF system components are the most/least connected to other parts of the system?” In subsequent modules focused on specific WEF sub-systems, introductory lectures provided more in-depth information about specific sub-system interdependencies. These lectures were followed by class discussions in which the original class cluster map was revised with given any new insights gained. The class cluster mapping exercise was repeated after each sub-system module.

Students also self-selected a specific sub-system (e.g., “water for food”) and individually organized the relevant portion of the class cluster map into their own circle map. A circle map is a method for organizing the nodes and links revealed during the cluster mapping exercise into a circular, “small-world” network structure. Nodes are positioned along the circumference such that each node directly influences and is influenced by its neighbors. Links can then be made between distant nodes that span the circle. The circle map facilitates visualization of the interconnected sub-system and identification of potential trade-offs between distant, interacting system components. After the initial creation of the generalized WEF nexus circle maps, each student individually filled-in or adapted their circle map to the Tempisque River basin context based on provided background materials and independent research. Collecting the final circle maps and intermediate cluster maps after each case study module provides summative and formative assessment opportunities, respectively.

Policy Brief

Based on their self-selected sub-system, the students were asked to develop a policy brief that targeted the most relevant agency in Costa Rica (e.g., The National Service of Groundwater, Irrigation and Drainage (Senara)) as a final summative assessment. Required components of the policy brief included an executive summary, problem context and scope, policy alternative, policy recommendation, and supporting appendices and sources. The executive summary forced the students to think critically about the most salient issues to provide a concise overview of problems posed by their sub-system. To provide potential policy alternatives, students were encouraged to look beyond the case study context for policies that have been proposed or applied in other water, energy, food, or ecological systems, which fostered comparative analysis skills. Finally, students took a policy position for which they described concrete steps to address the problem and provided a rationale to support their position along with appropriate data and reliable sources. This last task developed critical thinking skills, introduced research best practices, and engaged students in higher-level synthesis learning.

TEMPISQUE RIVER WATERSHED CASE STUDY

Case Study Background

This case study focuses on the Tempisque River watershed1 in Guanacaste province, which is a major tourist destination as well as one of the country’s most productive agricultural regions supported by extensive irrigation projects. The Tempisque River basin extends over 5,400 km2, encompassing nearly 10% of Costa Rica’s land area, and is an important economic region. Tourism, aquaculture, cattle grazing, and extensive cash crops dominated by sugar cane and paddy rice, all interacting with national parks and wildlife protected areas, have brought prosperity and employment to the region [20]. Among the protected wildlife areas, Palo Verde National Park, an international Ramsar site with 20,762 ha, is particularly important in the river basin with extensive protecting seasonal wetlands (7,809 ha) and dry forests (10,662 ha).

Historically, anthropogenic activities have impacted the Tempisque River basin’s tropical dry forest, including itinerant agriculture during the pre-Columbian period, extensive cattle grazing during colonial times, and intensive agricultural cash crops in recent times [21]. During the last 50 years, three main factors accounted for such changes are (1) development of key transportation routes, such as the construction of the Inter-American Highway connecting this region with the major cities of the country, (2) modification of the government’s economic policies, promoting an agro-business model for exportation goods, and (3) changes in the international market, with unpredictable fluctuations that impacted the local economies [21, 22].

The Tempisque River lowlands have experienced substantial land-use changes during the last five decades. In 1956, nearly 40% of the basin was forested, 50% was pastures, and there was no significant land for agricultural use (Table S1 in Teaching Notes in Supplementary Materials). By 2000, almost 50% of the forested lands were converted to agricultural fields, creating one of the most productive agricultural zones in Costa Rica. Only 58,559 ha of forest remained, most of which were secondary forests found mainly in protected areas. Since 2000, the agricultural area has not grown significantly in the Tempisque River basin, but important crop switches have occurred impacting water use intensity. Specifically, many sites that cultivated irrigated rice switched to sugar cane by 2010 [23]. The growth of agricultural fields in the basin during the last 20 years was mainly due to government policies to increase the exportation of cash crops and implementation of the mega Irrigation Project Arenal-Tempisque (DRAT), which diverts waters from Arenal Lake on the Caribbean side of the country to the Tempisque Lowlands. This irrigation project serves only the lands on the left margin (i.e., eastern side) of the Tempique River and provides water mainly for the production of paddy rice (31,000 ha), sugar cane, and fish ponds.

Water Use

The Tempisque basin is the only watershed in the country with a seasonal climate, with the high demand of water for irrigation during the six-month dry season. In contrast, during the wet season, major floods due to heavy rain can affect more than 100,000 ha, causing considerable damages to crops and infrastructure. The main flood control actions, artificial levees and canals, have shown to be partial, non-integrated, ineffective, and with high ecological impact [24]. To cope with this seasonal demand of water, the Irrigation Project Arenal—Tempisque, delivers some 45 m3s−1 to irrigate nearly 18,000 ha on the left margin of the Tempisque River, with a mean flow rate of 1–2 m3s−1ha−1 and water use efficiency estimated at most between 40 and 50%. In areas not served by the irrigation project, water needs are met by surface water from the Tempisque River through concessions granted by the government. According to official records, up to 2000, there were 109 water concessions, for a total of 16.3 m3s−1 granted for irrigating crops [25]. With regard to groundwater, a total of 1.2 m3s−1 are already exploited for irrigation in the same sector. Given a mean flow in the Tempisque River during the dry season that barely exceeds 8.0 m3s−1, the river is clearly over concessioned and/or exploited. In addition, there are more than 1,780 perforated wells reported for the area, however, the amount of groundwater extracted has not been measured.

The ecotourism sector in Northwest Costa Rica, although mainly concentrated along the coast and geographically outside the watershed, depends mainly on this basin for freshwater supply. Due to its topographic characteristics, access routes, favorable dry tropical climate for beach activities, and closeness to the United States and Canada, this region became an attractive destination for foreign capital. The opening of the International Airport in 2002 facilitated the growth of ecotourism, which thereafter became a significant contribution to the local economy [26]. The growing ecotourism sector now competes with the agricultural sector for scarce water resources. Although no systematic studies have been carried out, conflicts over water use have emerged and the demand for water from the Tempisque River basin has increased notably. According to the Acueductos y Alcantarillados (AyA) [27], 57.7% of water for human consumption in this province is supplied by AyA, 2.6% by municipalities, and 39.7% by Committees or Associations Administrators of Rural Aqueducts, for a total population coverage of 100%. Of these, 84.3% of the population receives water from 207 aqueducts that supply water of potable quality, while the remaining 15.7% of the population receives water from 163 non-potable aqueducts. At the county level, potable water supply is highly heterogeneous, ranging between 30.3% (Nandayure) and 97.7% (Liberia) of the population served, respectively, which illustrates the level of inequality in this important service. Most water sources used for human consumption are wells (n = 327), of which 230 (70%) wells are in excellent condition. Also, 228 springs are used, of these 58 (25%) springs are considered of excellent quality. For its part, this province has 4 water treatment plants and 15 surface water sources as sources of supply for human consumption.

Teaching Activities

Students were introduced to “nexus thinking” to explore the multiple and overlapping water, energy, food, and ecological challenges present in Guanacaste province. The overall goal of this case study was to build a general understanding of WEF nexus concepts that could be investigated in-depth with concrete examples from the Tempisque River case study. Specific student learning goals included are as follows:

  • Understand the supply and demand of resources in each WEF sector, and current or future challenges to sustaining current consumption or production levels.

  • Understand how the economic development of WEF resources impacts biodiversity conservation.

  • Ability to identify and characterize points of intersection, i.e., the nexus, of WEF supply and demand, and trade-offs that exist between WEF resources and biodiversity conservation.

  • Appreciate the complexity of WEF systems and the need for multiple perspectives to govern and manage WEF Nexus issues.

A combination of lectures, online videos and readings with discussion questions, and classroom discussion and system mapping activities were used. Readers can refer to the PowerPoint slides and teaching notes provided in the Supplemental Materials for more information.

RESULTS

We conducted pre- and post-learning surveys to assess changes in student comprehension of WEF nexus thinking, their abilities to apply those general concepts to the specific case study context, and their grasp of the policy and governance contexts in which WEF nexus issues in the Tempisque River watershed were embedded. The survey used topical statements to elicit students’ reactions on a 5-point Likert scale. All eight students completed the surveys (Table 1).

TABLE 1.

Pre- and post-learning assessment of WEF nexus issues based on a 5-point Likert scale

StatementPre-learning MeanPost-learning Mean
1. “Water availability is an environmental issue rather than a social issue” 2.6 1.6 
2. “Agriculture is the largest water consumer worldwide” 4.0 4.6 
3. “Increasing food production to meet the demands of a growing population will stress water supplies” 4.6 4.6 
4. “Increasing food production to meet the demands of a growing population will stress energy supplies” 4.5 4.6 
5. “Besides hydroelectric power generation, society can increase energy production without impacting water supplies” 3.0 3.2 
6. “Water consumption for food production in arid regions of the world, like Saudi Arabia, is lower than in humid places with greater available surface water and groundwater” 2.1 2.4 
7. “Biofuels, such as corn or sugarcane for ethanol, offer a socially- and environmentally-friendly way to produce energy while reducing greenhouse gases” 2.5 2.4 
8. “Environmental flow (i.e., available surface water left in rivers to support ecosystems) is the largest consumer of freshwater in rivers” 2.9 1.8 
9. “Watershed management poses many trade-offs” 4.1 4.6 
StatementPre-learning MeanPost-learning Mean
1. “Water availability is an environmental issue rather than a social issue” 2.6 1.6 
2. “Agriculture is the largest water consumer worldwide” 4.0 4.6 
3. “Increasing food production to meet the demands of a growing population will stress water supplies” 4.6 4.6 
4. “Increasing food production to meet the demands of a growing population will stress energy supplies” 4.5 4.6 
5. “Besides hydroelectric power generation, society can increase energy production without impacting water supplies” 3.0 3.2 
6. “Water consumption for food production in arid regions of the world, like Saudi Arabia, is lower than in humid places with greater available surface water and groundwater” 2.1 2.4 
7. “Biofuels, such as corn or sugarcane for ethanol, offer a socially- and environmentally-friendly way to produce energy while reducing greenhouse gases” 2.5 2.4 
8. “Environmental flow (i.e., available surface water left in rivers to support ecosystems) is the largest consumer of freshwater in rivers” 2.9 1.8 
9. “Watershed management poses many trade-offs” 4.1 4.6 

1 = strongly disagree.

5 = strongly agree.

The most pronounced shifts in student learning were related to their perceptions of the intersections among agriculture, water use, and environmental flows (Table 1). Perceptions of water availability as only an environmental issue (Question 1) and the environment as the main water user (Question 8) showed the largest shifts. Before the course, perceptions of water availability as an environmental issue and concept were neutral with average ratings of 2.6 and 2.9, respectively. Post-learning scores, however, moved toward disagreement with averages of 1.6 and 1.8, respectively. Similarly, the students gained a deeper appreciation for the central role of agriculture in WEF nexus issues (Question 2) and the challenges posed for watershed management (Question 9). Although the shifts in pre- and post-learning scores are relatively small, these quantitative shifts were reinforced by qualitative improvement in in-class discussions of WEF connections to agriculture. Students’ answers to discussion questions become more precise in the use of terminology and cross-sector connections were made more readily. Perceptions of both dimensions generally increased from agree to strongly agree as trade-offs among agricultural and other watershed uses became clear. In contrast, student perceptions of other WEF nexus topics, such as hydroelectric power generation, biofuel production, and water stress, did not change. We attribute this to the relatively high background knowledge of the students since six out of the eight students are in environmentally-related majors.

The evolution of class and individual cluster maps provided a valuable formative assessment. The class cluster map was created after the initial introduction to the WEF nexus and was revisited after each subsequent WEF module. Figure 1 shows the first and the last iterations of the class cluster map. The final class cluster map contained more concepts, more and denser connections between nodes, and a greater diversity of concepts. More importantly, the final map included many more indirect and/or nuanced connections for WEF resources. For example, the final class cluster map added trade-offs among groundwater and surface water irrigation, tourism, land-use changes for development, and water use intensity—a key nexus of competing interests in the Tempisque River watershed. Similar increases in nodes and connections were observed in each of the students’ individual cluster maps, which were reflected in the breadth of WEF nexus issues covered in the students’ policy briefs.

FIGURE 1.

Initial (A) and final (B) class cluster maps of WEF nexus concepts and their interlinkages.

FIGURE 1.

Initial (A) and final (B) class cluster maps of WEF nexus concepts and their interlinkages.

The policy briefs provided a summative assessment of students’ understanding of specific WEF nexus issues. Each student selected a specific WEF sub-system (e.g., “water for food”) to develop a policy brief grounded in the issues present in the Tempisque River watershed. Leading up to this final assignment, students were required to develop their own individual cluster and circle maps, each with finer resolution and greater detail than the class cluster map. The individual cluster maps enabled an assessment of how well each student understood the relevant concepts and component interactions for their sub-system, and provided a vehicle for students to perform a full accounting of system components relevant to their sub-system. The many and often nebulous connections represented in the cluster maps were then refined and organized into circle maps, which required students to articulate how each system component connection functioned (see Figure S1 in Supplementary Materials for an example circle map). The circle maps were then used to guide the students’ research into the background and technical information to describe the significance of specific WEF system connections in their policy brief.

CONCLUSION

The case study and accompanying class activities covered a wide range of WEF nexus issues, and the application of those concepts to the Tempisque River watershed grounded students’ understanding of salient trade-offs among WEF resources and users. Systems thinking is a necessary skill for understanding the WEF nexus, and students demonstrated their understanding and grasp of systems concepts and tools through iterative cluster mapping as a class and individually. In particular, they were able to identify and describe key intersection points between the supply and demand of WEF resources and relate those to associated stakeholders/users among which conflicts have the potential to arise. Students also gained familiarity with the research process by gathering, interpreting, and synthesizing qualitative and quantitative data in support of their policy briefs. A potential future extension to this case study could include a richer stakeholder identification and analysis [28], which can then inform classroom role playing activities such as a mock public forum or multi-lateral negotiations [29].

Conventional disciplinary teaching and learning approaches must change to equip students with the necessary competencies to navigate today’s interdisciplinary and “wicked” socio-environmental problems [30]. The case study approach is essential for teaching students about complex issues, such as the WEF nexus, and engaging them in synthetic thinking that bridges the gaps between disciplines and social, economic, and environmental problem domains. The WEF nexus is particularly well-suited to a modular case study approach in which parts of a complex system are introduced and gradually pieced together. The breadth and multi-sector nature of WEF nexus issues require both teachers and instructors to embrace a more problem-oriented rather than disciplinary mindset. Given the growing prevalence and gravity of WEF nexus issues, pedagogical changes are urgently needed to teach and train the next generation of problem-solvers.

CASE STUDY QUESTIONS

  1. Why are policy solutions to address water, energy, and food issues such a challenge?

  2. What advantages do WEF nexus thinking offer over conventional, disciplinary thinking for identifying trade-offs among WEF resource users?

  3. What limitations might WEF nexus thinking pose for developing policy interventions?

  4. What is virtual water? And what countries would you expect to have the largest virtual water footprints and why?

  5. In what ways will climate change affect freshwater supplies?

  6. What sources of renewable energy does Costa Rica use?

  7. What unique aspects of Costa Rica have made their energy strategy possible?

  8. What keeps us from feeding the world’s population with the current level of agricultural production?

  9. What are four natural flow stages and what ecological functions do they serve and/or ecological stresses do they present?

  10. Describe how human-managed river flows, e.g., for generating hydropower, differ from natural river flows?

AUTHOR CONTRIBUTIONS

NM: conceptualization, data curation, formal analysis, methodology, original draft, writing, and editing. EG-J: project administration, resource, review, writing, and editing.

COMPETING INTERESTS

The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

SUPPLEMENTARY MATERIALS

Teaching notes: background material, description of course modules, class activities, and discussion questions (DOC).

Slides: lecture slides for each introductory water, energy, food, and environmental flows module (PPT).

A slide (PPT) containing an example circle map.

Student handout: document given to students with case study background information and directions for each module and class assignments (DOC).

1.

The full report on which this slide set is based is available here (in English and Spanish): https://portals.iucn.org/library/node/9142.

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