T16P19 - Engaging Critically with Water-Energy-Food Nexus Approaches

Topic : Sustainable Development and Policy

Panel Chair : Toni Darbas - toni.darbas@csiro.au

Objectives and Scientific Relevance of the panel

All nexus conceptions share general perceptions of present and future change and offer recommendations for more integrated water, energy and food management. In the late 2000s, the nexus concept was seen by influential OECD think tanks and development advisors as offering a promising set of entry points to address the criticisms of, and difficulty of achieving, Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM). Others distance themselves from a water centric nexus analyses and argue for equal weighting of the water, energy and food sectors (Smajgl et al, 2016).

The Bonn 2011 Nexus Conference aimed to explore: "how a nexus approach can enhance water, energy and food security by increasing efficiency, reducing trade-offs, building synergies and improving governance across sectors … through a toolbox that consists of improved risk assessment, increasing resource productivity, better governance and policy coherence … and at the same time creating cross-sectoral horizontal … and vertical synergies between different levels (international, national, regional, local), but also across administrative boundaries (basin-wide, trans-boundary)” (cited in Leese & Meisch, 2015:699-70).

Contributions from proponents of nexus perspective have demonstrated: the value of systems thinking; promoted tools such as hydrological modelling; invested in participatory approaches with decision-makers, and claimed that nexus thinking offers leverage in meeting the Sustainable Development goals and targets (e.g. Rasul, 2016). It is a significant advantage of a nexus framing of sustainable development that the interacting effects of subsystems, or inter-sectorial feedback, is actively considered. This holistic approach to complex systems understands that efficiency as a goal in itself can be problematic; various social feedbacks often see the efficiency gains taken up, or having unwanted impacts elsewhere (see Scott et al., 2014).

However, the public policy utility of WEF thinking is presented as being highly technical, ‘top-down’, and involving quantitative evidence (e.g. river basin modelling, development risk assessments). The policy audience is conceived of as supra-national fora to support their decision-making around large scale development investments using green modernisation criteria. But supra-national organisations (e.g. Mekong River Commission) are lacking where they are most needed, such as in South Asia. This reality narrows the available policy audiences, processes and levers appealed to by the WEF community. Secondly, the potential to use WEF to create “cross-sectoral horizontal … and vertical synergies between different levels (international, national, regional, local), but also across administrative boundaries (basin-wide, trans-boundary)” (in Leese & Meisch, 2015:670) is arguably better supported by a more deliberative and less technical understanding of the role of evidence in policy (Hoppe, 2011; Hajer and Wagenaar, 2003). Thirdly, in ‘Aidland’ (Mosse, 2011) such ambit calls are recognised by anthropologists and sociologists of development as ‘silver bullets’ that are countered by calls for ‘Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation’ (Andrews et al 2013) that treat historical trajectories and contexts as pivotal resources on which  interventions depend if they are to prove sustainable (or ‘scalable’).


Allouche, J.; Middleton, C.; Gyawali, D. (2015) Technical veil, hidden politics: Interrogating the power linkages behind the nexus, Water Alternatives, 8, 610–626

Andrews, M., Pritchett, L. and Woolcock, M. (2013). Escaping Capability Traps Through Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA). World Development, 51, 234-244.

Foran, T., (2015) Node and regime: Interdisciplinary analysis of water-energy-food nexus in the Mekong region, Water Alternatives 8, 655-674

Hajer, M. A., and Wagenaar, H. (Ed.s) (2003) Deliberative Policy Analysis: Understanding Governance in the Network Society, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Hoppe, R. (2011) The Governance of Problems: Puzzling, Powering and Participation, The Policy Press, Bristol

Karlberg, L., Hoff, H., Amsalu, T., Andersson, K., Binnington, T., Flores-López, F., de Bruin, A., Gebrehiwot, S.G., Gedif, B., zur Heide, F. (2015) Tackling complexity: Understanding the food-energy-environment nexus in Ethiopia’s Lake Tana sub-basin, Water Alternatives 8, 710-734

Leese, M., and Meisch, S. (2015) Securitising sustainability? Questioning the 'water, energy and food-security nexus', Water Alternatives 8(1), 695-709

Middleton, C.; Allouche, J.; Gyawali, D.; Allen, S. (2015) The rise and implications of the water-energy-food nexus in Southeast Asia through an environmental justice lens, Water Alternatives, 8, 627–654

Mosse, D. (2011) (Ed.) Adventures in Aidland: the Anthropology of Professionals in International Development, Berghahn, New York

Rasul, G. (2016) Managing the food, water, and energy nexus for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals in South Asia, Environmental Development 18, 14-25

Scott, C.A., Vicuña, S., Blanco-Gutiérrez, I., Meza, F., and C. Varela-Ortega, C. (2014) Irrigation efficiency and water-policy implications for river basin resilience, Hydrology and Earth System Science, 18, 1339-1348

de Strasser, L., Lipponen, A., Howells, M., Stec, S., Bréthaut, C. (2016) A methodology to assess the water energy food ecosystems nexus in transboundary river basins, Water, 8, 59

Smajgl, A., Ward, J., and Pluschke, L. (2016) The water–food–energy Nexus – Realising a new paradigm, Journal of Hydrology, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jhydrol.2015.12.033

World Commission on Dams (2000) Dams and development: A new framework for decision-making: The report of the World Commission on Dams, London, Earthscan, www.dams.org


Call for papers

Although the water-energy-food (WEF) nexus is claimed to constitute a systemic perspective, it elides extant (e.g. agrarian, patrimonial and patriarchal) power relations, the institutional architecture built upon those relations, and potential leverage points for changing both. However, distributional criteria such as ethnicity, gender, caste and class form thresholds can be crucial, such as where ‘losers’ refuse to accept WEF informed policy shifts or development investments as legitimate (see World Commission on Dams, 2000). Critical enrichment of the WEF nexus concept, particularly from social science perspectives, has revolved around integrating such distributional considerations into WEF thinking (Leese & Meisch, 2015; Allouche et al., 2015; Middleton et al., 2015; Foran, 2015). However, WEF thinking remains largely water centric. The controversial topic of whether and how agricultural subsidies (for inputs, machinery, irrigation and energy) can benefit smallholders while preventing distortions of both social systems (e.g. by providing opportunities for ‘leakage’ and development of vote banks) and ecosystems (e.g. by encouraging groundwater mining) is yet to receive explicit attention from a nexus point of view.

We call for papers that explore the potential of the nexus as a paradigm to inform and support development interventions that achieve transformational rather than incremental adaptation to a climate changed and resource constrained future, and do so by transecting:

the water, energy and food sectors;
local to international scales of development decision-making; and/or
ecological and jurisdictional boundaries; and/or
civic, public and private (or society, state and economic) modalities of action.
In practical and theoretical terms, how can nexus approaches inform transformational development policy-making and implementation? Can nexus deliberations be used to spring poverty traps? This panel invites contributions to nexus thought from critical and exploratory perspectives, particularly with respect to gender, systems of knowledge production (e.g. modelling), agrarian power relations, and the political economy of nexus governance.


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