The Water-Sustainable Management of Biofuels


Feedstock: the biomass from which a biofuel is derived – for example, corn would be the feedstock for corn ethanol [12].

First generation biofuels: Biofuels derived from the sugars or oils of a conventional feedstock, often a plant that is part of the food supply chain – such as when soybeans are used to create biodiesel. The biofuels that are currently in widespread industrial production (ethanol, biodiesel) are first generation fuels.

Second generation biofuels: Biofuels derived from a variety of feedstocks that are not part of the food chain. These include fuels derived from cellulose, from crop residues, and even municipal biomass waste. Several of these second generation biofuels  are currently being produced, but not on the same scale as first generation fuels [10][12].

Third generation biofuels: Biofuels derived from algae. Third generation biofuels face technological barriers, but have the potential to become an energy source that does not require arable land [10]. See biofuels implementation here.

Admixture: In the case of biofuels, a mixture of some amount of biofuel added to another fuel.


Obscured by the debate over land use requirements for the production of biofuels (see appendix at the bottom) is the issue of water scarcity. Often, it is not the availability of land but of water that determines the limit of biofuel expansion in a region [17]. The expansion of the biofuels industry is taking place in regions that have encountered an increased energy demand – but not necessarily in the regions that are most suited to sustain the feedstocks. For example, in northern China it takes 2,400 L of irrigation water to irrigate the crops for a liter of sugar cane ethanol, and in India it takes 3,500 L – compared to Brazil, where only requires 90 L of  irrigation water produces sugarcane ethanol feedstock due to the naturally higher rainfall levels and soil properties. Yet, both China and India plan to rapidly increase their biofuel production [17]. If water is reallocated to biofuels in water-scarce regions, this will pressure the other sectors which require it, which could precipitate a host of related problems (see background).

Many countries view biofuels as highly desirable, and a way out of petroleum based energy security troubles; biofuels are viewed as a renewable resource. If a nation is able to produce biofuels domestically, it would lower its reliance on imports of fuel from other countries. This in turn would provide a political advantage, and would have the economic benefit that the country would not be subject to price fluctuations in a fuel source that was entirely outside the realm of their control. As of 2011, the global production of biofuels reached 1,897.202 barrels per day [15]. As of 2011, there were eleven countries producing more than 10,00 barrels per day of biofuels.


Utilized capacity of biofuels (barrels produced/day)

Utilized capacity of oil (barrels produced/day) for comparison


































Table 1: Countries producing more than 10,000 barrels of biofuel/day [15]

Mission 2017 is convinced that it is possible to manage the water withdrawals of biofuels so that the industry doesn’t bloat and lead more and more people to be deprived of their basic human right to water. Mission 2017 is also convinced that it is possible to harness the potential of biofuels to provide the world energy in a water sustainable manner. This article proposes three solutions intended to help make these possibilities become realities, and designed to be implemented immediately: (1) Cap the water withdrawals for first generation biofuels, (2) Phase in second/third generation biofuels (3) Research and optimize second/third generation fuels.


1. Roll back first generation biofuels.

It takes a massive amount of water to produce first generation biofuels. In the U.S, for example, refining equal amounts of corn ethanol and oil use roughly equal volumes of water. Yet that is nearly insignificant when compared to the amount of water it takes to produce the corn itself. It takes about a thousand times more water to produce the feedstock for that ethanol than it would take to refine an equivalent volume of oil [13]. Soy beans used in require still more water than corn (see figure 1).


Figure 1: Comparison of water use for various fuels (Data from the U.S.) [13]

Mission 2017 recommends that countries take immediate action to limit the production of first generation biofuels to a reasonable level. That level will vary according to the local climate and soil conditions. Mission 2017 defines “reasonable level” as the point where the use of water to irrigate and refine biofuels would not lead to a violation of the Declarations if the annual rainfall hits a 10-year minimum.

In some cases, there is enough water naturally available that a country may meet a significant amount of their energy needs using first generation biofuels. Mission 2017 recommends that these nations impose caps on the water use of their biofuels industry. This will allow the current production to be maintained, while safeguarding the country’s water supply in the long term. It will encourage first generation biofuel producers to seek increasingly water-efficient biofuels in order to increase their profits, as expansion will come from “smarter” use rather than “more” use of this precious resource. In a similar vein, the policy will encourage better irrigation methods as biofuel companies search for ways to increase their production while working within the bounds of the water they are allowed.

To lessen the impact of this legislation on the biofuels industry, these countries should take advantage of public-private partnerships, government subsidies or foreign aid grants as available to develop infrastructure for the purpose of irrigating biofuel feedstock. It will also encourage the re-use of water, which may be even more successful with biofuels crops than with typical agriculture [6][15]. This could even have the side benefit of helping to manage wastewater disposal. This segment of the policy would benefit the companies who purified the water, and would benefit the biofuels industry by supplementing their capped water supply. Both segments of the policy would benefit the nation that implemented it by increasing their energy and water security. Not only would it prevent the biofuels industry from using water needed for cultivating food or domestic use, but it would greatly reduce the risk that a dry year would lead to a sudden spike in the cost of fuel.

In Brazil, for example, rainfall is sufficient to irrigate large amounts of biofuel sugar cane feedstock [4][9]. However, as the biofuel industry has expanded, there is an ever-increasing pressure to find more arable land to grow the crop (see Appendix). In addition, there has been an increased use of increased irrigation for the feedstock, as less and less optimal land is used to grow the sugar cane [9]. For more on this specific case, see implementation article. If our recommendations are applied in Brazil, the companies producing biofuels would have to shift their focus from “more” production to “more efficient” production. Brazil should still be able to reap the economic and energy security benefits of having a strong domestic fuel industry that it currently enjoys as a result of its use of biofuels.

Mission 2017 understands that legislation takes time to craft carefully, especially with as many variables as policies such as these would have to consider. In light of this, Mission 2017 urges immediate work to begin on these policies, in the hopes that at all major biofuel producing countries, will have legislation enacted within the next 5-10 years. The only expenses incurred by a government enacting this solution would be those related to the incentives for water purification. The funds for this could be drawn from their energy or environmental budget if the nation has resources available. If this is not an option, the country could consider imposing a tax on companies which are severe water polluters to provide the necessary funds for the purification-for-biofuels effort.

Mission 2017 encourages nations that rely on shared water resources to utilize international bodies such as the United Nations to facilitate agreements to create such policies in any trans-boundary agreements they develop. Mission 2017 encourages Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) concerned with water availability to run grassroots campaigns in favor of this legislation in order to facilitate its passage.

2. Phase in Second/Third Generation Fuels

Second and third generation biofuels have the potential to be more water-sustainable than first generation biofuels [11]. Some algae do not require freshwater to grow, for example, and some second generation fuels are designed for dry-land conditions and have much higher Water Use Efficiency ratings (See implementation article for a more in-depth comparison of different biofuel feedstocks).

Currently, second generation biofuels are not in widespread commercial production (see figure 2), and there is a wide range of speculations on when, if ever, they will be [11]. The International Energy Agency’s 2008 report predicted that commercial production could potentially be achieved by 2015, widespread production by 2020, and be cost competitive before 2030 [15]. Mission 2017 believes that this progress should be encouraged with financial incentives, for if second generation biofuels bred to be low consumers of water could out-compete or replace first generation biofuels, the world would be able to produce more energy from biofuels using less water (see implementation article). Even if second generation biofuel crops prove to be a stepping stone on the road to more water-sustainable sources yet to be developed, it is a sensible step to substantially reduce water use in the near term.


Figure 2: Comparing first generation and ligno-cellulosic biofuels production 1980 to 2007 [11]

A large number of countries have policies in place to encourage the production of first generation biofuels. These policies are often directly responsible for massive amounts of fuels produced – for example, the U.S. produces more than 4 billion biofuels of corn ethanol per year, which would not be economically viable without the U.S. government’s corn subsidies [13]. Some of these policies take the form of tax cuts on the product [14].  Some take the form of requirements that transport fuel companies to mix some amount of biofuel with their product (see table 1). These policies were put into place to reduce dependence on foreign imports.

Mission 2017 recommends that government funding from policies designed to encourage first generation biofuels should be expanded to cover alternative fuels including second and third generation biofuels. Mission 2017 notes the success of such policies in promoting first generation biofuels, and believes that a country willing to invest money in subsidizing first generation fuels should be equally willing to subsidize their more water-efficient counterparts. If a nation does not have the resource to subsidize both, funds should be given preferentially to the most water-efficient feedstock that is ready to be produced on a commercial scale (see implementation article). Determining that feedstock will require feasibility testing, and Mission 2017 recommends the country apply for aid to do so.

As a further step to phase in second/third generation biofuels,  Mission 2017 recommends that all countries which require some admixture of ethanol or biodiesel begin shifting those requirements to the most water-efficient biofuel appropriate for the region within ten years. With the exception of palm oil, this would involve shifting requirements from biodiesel to ethanol (for the countries listed in table 2.1 and Table 2.2). In the event that more water efficient second or third generation biofuels (or even improved first generation biofuels) are being produced, Mission 2017 recommends the countries shift their requirements to cover these while leaving the overall percentage admixture intact, so as not to put strain on finite fossil fuel resources. Mission 2017 encourages countries considering scaling up their admixture requirements not to do so before conducting studies to determine whether the increased demand for biofuel would strain the demand for irrigated land past the point of long-term water sustainability.


% ethanol

% biodiesel

% total

Costa Rica
































South Africa



Table 2: Countries which have policies requiring some admixture of biofuel into transportation fuel, making up at least 10% of the fuel, excluding voluntary blending [18].

3. Expanding Research  

Countries seeking long-term solutions to their energy problems ought to consider second and/or third generation biofuels as an integral part of their overall plan. Different plants are suitable for different regions, and sometimes biofuel crops deplete water in ways that were not anticipated due to the qualities of the plants and the local soil conditions [8][17]. As a result, Mission 2017 encourages countries to invest in research on second and third generation biofuels, and to conduct studies to test the most promising fuel candidates before attempting to scale up production.

Mission 2017 notes that it does not endorse solutions which will contribute to uncontrolled climate change due to its potential to upset the fragile balance of freshwater resources.  Mission 2017 declares that future biofuel research programs must include greenhouse gas analyses of feedstock candidates before bringing them to the next stage of deployment. This includes full life-cycle analysis of nitrogen fixation of the ought to take place in evaluating these feedstocks candidates, as  N2O emissions from some biofuels can lead to a negative net impact on the climate [3]. It also includes analysis of net carbon footprint, which varies greatly amongst feedstocks [2]. No biofuel feedstock that exceeds the CO2 emissions of petrol (2.3 kg CO2 emitted per litre of motor fuel consumed) [16] should be considered for broad application.

In water-scarce regions, Mission 2017 encourages countries to consider fuels that make use of agricultural or industrial byproducts among the candidates for research – with the caveat that these byproducts truly be unused. Some agricultural “waste” is used to maintain soil nutrition in crops, and only excess should be removed and converted to fuel [17] (see implementation article).

Mission 2017 encourages all countries with the economic resources, but especially water-scarce regions, to devote resources to researching third generation biofuels, which have great potential but face technological barriers. This solution is “long-term,” in the sense that research will not necessarily yield results tomorrow – but Mission 2017 urges immediate action to forward the research, so that the water-saving results may begin to mitigate the effects of the global water crisis as soon as possible.


Mission 2017 believes that biofuels have an important role to play in meeting the world’s energy needs, but that in a world with a steadily growing population and more demand for fresh water, it is not a panacea. In the case where increased biofuel usage would leave more people denied of their daily water requirements, lead to mass deforestation, or lead to international conflict, both the short and long-term costs outweigh the benefits. We encourage countries that have the resources to invest in improving biofuels and pushing towards breakthroughs in water-efficient biofuels – or the resources to encourage other countries to do the same – to take full advantage of this opportunity.

Appendix: Further Background on Biofuels

Biofuels are a controversial fuel source, largely as a result of their land use. All first generation biofuels and most second generation biofuels directly compete with food plants for arable land [1][7][12]. In impoverished and/or food-insecure regions, an increase in the price of food could be disastrous [11]. South Africa  went to far as to ban the use of the staple food crop corn for use in biofuels, in recognition of this risk [5]. When the demand on agriculture is increased from merely food production to food and fuel production, there is increased pressure to increase the amount of farmland available – whether through deforestation or overuse of land [15]. Rural farmers have been impoverished when they were convinced to replace their crops with biofuel feedstocks that then did not grow well, as in the often-cited case of Jatropha [1]. Even if the energy sector as a whole gains from the expansion of biofuel use, the benefits may come at a human cost.



1. Achara, N. (2013). Jatropha In The Food Fuel Debate. Nature & Science, 11(3), 1-5.

2. Achten, W. M. J., and L. V. Verchot. (2011). Implications of Biodiesel-Induced Land-Use Changes for CO2 emissions: Case Studies in Tropical America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Ecology and Society, 16(4): 14.  Retrieved November 26, 2013 from

3. Crutzen, P. J., Mosier, A. R., Smith, K. A., & Winiwarter, W. (2007). N2O Release From Agro-Biofuel Production Negates Global Warming Reduction by Replacing Fossil Fuels. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussions, 7, 11191–11205. Retrieved December 26, 2013, from

4. Goldemberg, J., Coelho, S. T., & Guardabassi, P. (2008). The Sustainability Of Ethanol Production From Sugarcane. Energy Policy, 36(6), 2086-2097. Retrieved November 21, 2013, from

5. Jewitt, G., Wen, H., Kunz, R., & Rooyen, A. V. (2009). Scoping Study on Water Use of Crops/Trees for Biofuels in South Africa. Water Research Commission. Retrieved November 18, 2013, from

6. Kargbo, D. M. (2010). Biodiesel Production from Municipal Sewage Sludges . Energy Fuels, 24, 2791–2794. Retrieved November 21, 2013, from

7. Kurian, J. K., Nair, G. R., Hussain, A., & Raghavan, G. V. (2013). Feedstocks, Logistics and Pre-treatment Processes for Sustainable Lignocellulosic Biorefineries: A Comprehensive Review. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 25, 205-219. Retrieved November 18, 2013, from

8. Ong, C.K., & Leakey, R.R.B. (1999) Why Tree-Crop Interactions in Agroforestry Appear at Odds With Tree-Grass Interactions in Tropical Savannahs.   Agroforestry Systems, 45, 109-129.  Retrieved November 21, 2013 from

9. Moreira, J. R. (2006).  Water Use and Impacts Due to Ethanol Production in Brazil. Integrated Water Management Institute. Retrieved November 21, 2013, from

10. Reijnders, L., & Huijbregts, M. A. (2009). Biofuels for Road Transport: A Seed to Wheel Perspective. London: Springer.

11. Sims, R., Taylor, M., Saddler, J., & Mabee, W. (2008). From 1st to 2nd Generation Biofuels. International Energy Agency. Retrieved November 21, 2013, from

12. Speight, J. G. (2011). The Biofuels Handbook. Cambridge: The Royal Society of Chemistry

13. Energy Demands on Water Resources. 2006. Sandia National Laboratories. Retrieved October 25, 2013, from

14. Energy and and Transport Directorate-General, European Commission. 2006. Review of EU biofuels directive. European Commission. Retrieved October 25, 2013, from

15. International Energy Statistics. (n.d.). U.S. Energy Information Administration. Retrieved November 21, 2013, from,&syid=2011&eyid=2011&unit=TBPD

16. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions. (2008, October 24). Australian Government Department of the Environment. Retrieved November 27, 2013, from

17. Water Implications of Biofuel Crops: Understanding Tradeoffs and Identifying Options.International Water Management. Retrieved November 5, 2013, from

18. Global Renewable Fuels Alliance. (n.d.). Global biofuel mandates. Retrieved from