(co-contributors: Dr. Stefan Uhlenbrook, Strategic Program Director – Water, Food and Ecosystems at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), Colombo, Sri Lanka, and the Flagship co-lead of the Coordinated Research Program Water, Land and Ecosystems of the CGIAR. & Dr. Luna Bharati, Principal Researcher – Hydro-Economic Modelling at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), based in Bonn, Germany.)
The concept of the Water-Energy-Food (WEF) Nexus has gained widespread traction in the last decade and now features prominently in the water research community. An Internet search reflects just how far the idea has resonated. There are now more than 8300 peer-reviewed publications on Google Scholar and numerous online blogs which contain a range of assessment frameworks, conceptual approaches, and model solutions.
The premise of the WEF nexus is that water, energy and food systems and their related sectors are inherently interlinked and that development projects need to be planned and implemented in a holistic manner. Applying a nexus approach means that potential conflicts between sectors are identified and managed, and synergies highlighted and harnessed. This is a promising way to deliver more integrated, sustainable and ultimately effective projects that embody notions of systems thinking which have resonated widely in academia.
WEF nexus, however, is more than an ideal concept or aspirational approach. Consequences that follow from a failure to consider the nexus are real and potentially severe. Ignoring sectoral interconnections can lead to long-term system failure, and drive avoidable risks to economies, livelihoods and food security. In the Aral Sea Basin of Central Asia, for example, inefficient irrigation practices wasted water and caused excessive consumption of energy which limited electricity transmission to other sectors that needed it. Projects that embrace nexus approaches can avoid such negative outcomes.
Unfortunately, among the abundant articles on the WEF nexus, remarkably few focus on successfully implemented development projects. Indeed, there are few comparative analyses of WEF project performance to monitor, demonstrate and document impacts. Further, the frequency with which sectors representing the non-water elements of the WEF – namely, energy and food – appear to drive nexus projects may leave something to be desired.
To be clear, nexus projects do exist that have put principle to practice with impressive results. In Central Asia, for example, research by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) demonstrates that substantial savings can be achieved in water and energy if more efficient irrigation technologies are adopted. As a result of this finding, the government of Uzbekistan adopted a policy of irrigation efficiency which led to a drastic increase in efficient drip sprinkler systems in the last three years. And in India, solar-powered pumps for irrigation have reduced carbon emissions and improved access to irrigation with multiple benefits for food and nutrition security, health and livelihoods for smallholder farmers. While not without challenges, projects to tailor this technology to specific circumstances, minimizing environmental impacts and maximizing social and economic benefits, have had remarkable successes.
These examples highlight concrete benefits obtained through pursuit of a systems view across the water, energy and food sectors. In Central Asia, addressing irrigation inefficiencies led to concrete changes that benefited the water and energy sectors. And impacts associated with projects on solar-powered irrigation have led to multiple changes of water and energy policies, though equally highlighting additional risk that follows from less costly access to water—careful pricing of the energy is thus critical, to incentivize wise use of electricity for irrigation for food production but de-incentivize overabstraction of water resources. Nonetheless, more accessible electricity has also produced second-order benefits such as production of surplus power that can be transferred back to the grid for other uses – if connected. Ultimately, taking a systems view to understanding the connections and interrelationships among sectors within a broader ecosystems perspective is the first step to promoting efficiency, managing trade-offs and preventing conflicts which enhances sustainability, equity and food, water and energy security for all.
It would certainly be a shame if approaches like these are not reinforced, disseminated and used as a basis for broader roll-out of nexus solutions. However, contextualization of the 10+ years of WEF nexus discussions suggests that not unlike other concepts in the ebb and flow of international development community, the WEF nexus window may not stay open forever. Indeed, there is some danger that the concept may fade if the moment is not seized through approaches like effective researcher-practitioner partnerships to ensure attractive concepts translate to actual implementation for real benefits. Ultimately, the WEF nexus has already influenced greater cross-sectoral approaches at a conceptual level. It is now time to take the next step. Toward this end, we offer three recommendations:
- Document practical impacts to demonstrate on-the-ground utility. We suggest a compilation and rigorous analysis of implemented WEF nexus projects – successes and failures alike – to understand drivers and parameters of success. This needs to be supported by metrics that assess performance, for which there is likely benefit in applying both conventional measures like productivity and efficiency as well as indicators that gauge progress toward larger aims like resilience, sustainability and satisfaction of social norms and preferences. The results of this analysis will be central to demonstrate value, and strengthen learning loops to improve WEF project implementation which in turn supports resource mobilisation and impact in the future.
- Keep it simple — distil the complexity. Be it due to the heavy engagement of academia or other reasons, there may be insufficient balance between a) developing new and at times more esoteric nexus approaches, and b) understanding the efficacy of existing activities. Capturing complexity through sophisticated approaches no doubt contains substantial value, but it is equally relevant to keep an eye on uptake and use which often benefits from simple, direct messaging and building on existing approaches. Related, packaging concepts through creation of tools that make nexus services explicit may be key to translate complex realities into usable products.
- Engage sectors representing the E and F. While rigorous analysis assessing the volume of activity on WEF emerging from the energy and food (or agriculture) sectors is not known to be undertaken, it appears that the concept is heavily driven by the water sector. Failure to foster greater engagement with non-water sectors will undoubtedly constrain the viability of this approach going forward. Proactively reaching out to other communities and sectors, and creating incentive mechanisms for diverse sectors to achieve sincere and meaningful cross-sectoral collaboration, may thus be required to move the needle for the WEF nexus.
Are we ready for this?