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OPINION: Tackling the water-energy-food nexus without reinventing the wheel


Does a shift in global policy debates toward the ‘water-energy-food security nexus’ – that is, looking at competition over natural resources to provide for these vital needs – translate into any real change in the way water is managed? Is the concept useful in this era of a changing climate? Beatrice Mosello of ODI and Shehnaaz Moosa of CDKN report on the latest in ‘nexus’ debates from World Water Week, which they attended in Stockholm in September.

The water, energy and food (WEF) nexus has become a key concept for understanding the complexities of and interdependencies among the water, energy and agricultural sectors. It has become so key that this year’s World Water Week, organised by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) in September, was centred around this theme. Given the known and unknown effects of climate-related and socio-economic changes on natural resources and hence on the environmental and social systems that depend on them, the nexus approach calls for a more coherent and integrated approach to their management.

With the global demand for water projected to grow by 55% between 2000 and 2050 and electricity demand expected to increase by 50% in the next two decades, there is an urgent need for a closer relationship between the energy and water communities if we are to provide solutions for all peoples to prosper,” said Torgny Holmgren, Executive Director of SIWI (further background reading on this is provided by SIWI’s report on “Energy and Water: The Vital Link for a Sustainable Future”).

As we will be soon called to decide on a final set of Sustainable Development Goals, “the challenge for policy-makers is to fully take into account the multiple aspects and benefits of water: it is therefore essential to have a long-term sustainability perspective,” said Ms Hillevi Engström, Minister for International Development and Cooperation of Sweden during the opening plenary of World Water Week (see full video here). And I bet nobody would feel like disagreeing with these flamboyant statements. One thing that clearly emerged from the World Water Week is that we have a fairly good idea of what challenges lie ahead of us on the long road towards that much needed transformative economic development; but we are far less bold when it comes to suggest workable solutions to tackle such challenges, as also suggested in a recent opinion piece from ODI.

The nexus is not the first (and will not be the last) buzzword around which big conferences are organised. Before the nexus, the mantra in the water world was that of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM), more recently also proposed with an ‘adaptive’ variation. Both approaches, however, have encountered some serious problems when it comes to implementation. Therefore, we went to Stockholm looking for hopefully concrete answers to the following very concrete questions.

  1. How do we make sure that the nexus is different from previous attempts at managing water resources in an integrated and adaptive manner?
  2. What ideas are there on which institutional and policy frameworks and mechanisms are needed to implement the nexus approach?

First of all, the nexus approach fundamentally highlights that there will be trade-offs among the different purposes we decide to use our water resources for. For example. infrastructure may be built to store water and protect against the risks posed by floods; but the extent to which such infrastructure may create damage to surrounding ecosystems may not be taken into adequate consideration (something that is being increasingly investigated by a number of projects, amongst which is WISE-UP to Climate).  Because the nexus is supposed to help us manage trade-offs, it needs to be based upon a deep understanding of the underlying political economy context and processes: something that previous approaches to water resources management have often forgotten. To this end, one needs to identify the actors that decide over water allocation and use, at what governance level they operate, their power relations vis-à-vis each other, the rules of the game (i.e. the political and institutional framework within which they play), and the data and information they require.

“No one-size-fits-all solutions” was one of the clear messages put out and loud in Stockholm in response to the question: what institutional and policy frameworks and mechanisms are needed to implement the nexus approach? Each basin, country, region, even communities eventually will need to come up with the institutional and policy formulae that best work for them, depending on their demands, needs and development objectives. As put by Professor John Briscoe, 2014 Stockholm Water Prize Laureate, “every solution to water challenges is a local solution.” However, in our search for solutions, we should not ‘reinvent the wheel’, but get to grips with what already works well.

As the discussions in Stockholm have highlighted, a general consensus also seems to emerge over the fact that the private sector is increasingly becoming a key actor, so that the key question is not anymore on whether but on how and under what conditions they should be involved in water resources management. Some good practices on how businesses can effectively address nexus conflicts were presented by PepsiCo, Nestle and others in Stockholm. However, more remains done as “in some jurisdictions no matter how progressive […] the sustainable key performance indicators still come second place after the core business ones”, as observed by Peter Newborne of ODI.

All this, of course, should fundamentally take into account the fact that different power relationships will have inevitable impacts on how the nexus approach is implemented. In other words, each investment decision and course of action will have winners and losers: it is difficult to predict who they will be, but we need to seriously think through and incorporate equity principles into our decision-making over water allocation and use.

So yes, we are working in a very complex space. Discussion fora like the World Water Week in Stockholm make it clear that we are arriving at an increasingly sophisticated understanding of available opportunities. The nexus brings to light new analytical angles, but it should not be the end point – rather, it should encourage the identification of tools and processes that balance the social, economic and environmental requirements of sustainable development in the water sector while providing enough flexibility to adapt to socio-economic and climate change. Old and revisited, or brand new and creative solutions, coming from our brightest minds (the youth, researchers, business leaders, farmers, community practitioners, you and me) are what we need to ensure that we continue some of the good discussions started in Stockholm, engage in other ones, and, most importantly, are transformed into action.

 

Image: Ethiopia, courtesy Beatrice Mosello, ODI.

 

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