Making governance work for water-energy-food nexus approaches

Published: 6th July 2017 14:00Last Updated: 6th July 2017 14:00
Image credit Thomas Mueller/SPDA

Introduction

The concept of the water–energy–food (WEF) nexus has become widely used to help understand interdependencies among the three systems, and how they can be managed sustainably to meet growing demand. The water–energy–food nexus has especially been advocated to address conflicts among the sectors. However, governance in the water–energy–food nexus has not received much attention in the literature, particularly the institutions and politics governing the water–energy–food sectors.

This paper* synthesises findings from CDKN-supported action research in this area. The paper draws from findings in Indonesia, Kenya and the Amazon Basin to show that the effectiveness of the horizontal (cross-sectoral) and vertical (between levels of government) coordination that is essential for a nexus approach is determined by institutional relationships, which can be influenced by political economy factors. The capacity of governing organisations to understand nexus links and to collaborate with each other is also critical.

The paper suggests that aiming for the ideal of comprehensiveness and integration in a nexus approach may be costly and impractical. Nevertheless, horizontal and vertical coordination are essential. Local-level decision-making will determine how trade-offs and synergies in the water–energy–food nexus are implemented. The capacities of local government organisations and decision-makers need to be strengthened to enhance their capacity to adopt nexus approaches and coordinate vertically.

*Download the full paper from the right-hand column.

Background

Food, water and energy systems are inextricably linked. In this water–energy–food (WEF) nexus, actions in one system, or sector, affect the other two. The production of food requires water and energy. The supply and distribution of clean water requires energy and land-based ecosystems. The production of energy requires water and land. Choices about food production affect the use of energy and water, while choices about water and energy supplies affect land use. Moreover, these interdependencies are dynamic.

However, policies and actions tend to be decided in each sector without due consideration of the consequences for the other sectors in the nexus. Policies and actions decided in one sector can aggravate resource constraints by overlooking their impact on other sectors. In South Asia, for example, agricultural policy has increased grain production, as intended. But subsidies have resulted in the overuse of water and energy, putting huge pressure on water and energy resources, and weakening the sustainability of the food system. Deforestation in the Amazon basin, in pursuit of food production and the development of energy resources, has a negative effect on rainfall and water resources. Similarly, in Indonesia an assessment of nexus links found that resource trade-offs between different sectors could undermine achievement of policy objectives for water, energy and food security.

A WEF nexus perspective or approach introduces the question of how to minimise conflicts (i.e. trade-offs) between the three sectors, and how to promote synergies.


Figure 1 from page 8 of the paper: Trade-offs and synergies in the Indonesian WEF nexus 

Key Messages

  • Nexus approaches are approaches that understand the links between sectors and recognise these in decision-making and promote integrated policy-making.
  • Horizontal (cross-sectoral) and vertical (between levels of government) coordination is essential for a nexus approach and is determined by institutional relationships, which can be influenced by political economy factors.
  • The capacity of governing organisations to understand nexus links and to collaborate with each other is also critical.
  • Aiming for the ideal of comprehensiveness and integration in a nexus approach may be costly and impractical. Nevertheless, horizontal and vertical coordination are essential.
  • Local-level decision-making will determine how trade-offs and synergies in the Water-Energy-Food nexus are implemented.
  • The capacities of local government organisations and decision-makers need to be strengthened to enhance their capacity to adopt nexus approaches and coordinate vertically. 

Conclusions (abridged)

WEF nexus decisions are political - A WEF nexus approach recognises that trade-offs between water, energy and food systems are inherently associated with the competing demands for water, energy and food resources for human and economic development. In contexts of increasing resource scarcity and climate change, these trade-offs become more significant. For the WEF nexus, governance is concerned with how these trade-offs are decided, informed by knowledge of the links between sectors. Win–wins (synergies) may also be possible, but trade-offs are the source of contestation. The notion of a trade-off implies that someone or something (e.g. an ecosystem) loses out. Therefore decisions about trade-offs are political. Asymmetry of knowledge about links in the nexus could reinforce inequalities of access and political influence. A nexus approach should be used to make decisions about trade-offs transparent, ensuring that the cross-sectoral consequences of a decision are understood.

Practical approaches may be better than striving for the ‘ideal’ - An implicit question raised by the literature is whether the appropriate focus is on governance of the nexus, or governance in the nexus. Governance of the nexus implies policy- and decision-making that takes comprehensive account of the links between sectors and seeks to make decisions in the light of implications for all aspects of the nexus systems. Aiming for the ideal of comprehensiveness and integrated approaches for all decisions affecting the use of natural resource may be too diffcult and too costly. Local-level decision-making does not necessarily need sophisticated modelling and comprehensive data collection and analysis – the residents of any community have knowledge of the links in their locality. A more pragmatic approach, that allows for some inconsistency in policy-making and planning, but is integrated when critical cross-sectoral links are concerned, may be more realistic. An effective nexus approach may be as much a mindset for decision-makers as they are instruments of governance.

Paradox: More coordination can lead to centralisation - While the effective pursuit of a nexus approach – the integration of policies, strategies and plans across WEF sectors – may require a mindset that is open to working across sectors, in practice it also requires coordination between actors in different sectors, and between actors at different levels of government. As well as entailing significant costs, comprehensive coordination for a nexus approach could risk centralising power and influence in the nexus. Even when many responsibilities have been devolved from central government, imbalances in power and resources between central and local government could mean that strong coordination leads to more decision-making at the centre.

Need to strengthen capacities of local government institutions - It is decision-making at the local level that will largely determine how trade-offs and synergies in the WEF nexus are implemented. This highlights the importance of adoption and promotion of nexus approaches by local governments, which provide the planning framework for decision-making by local public and private organisations. The findings from Indonesia and Kenya point to three key factors for the effectiveness of nexus decision-making by local governments: knowledge of the (ecological and socioeconomic) links between the sectors; technical and administrative capacity to apply nexus knowledge and adopt a nexus approach; and mechanisms for coordination, horizontally and vertically. Research findings also show that the capacity of local government organisations and decision-makers in these three areas needs to be strengthened. The devolution of responsibilities to local government, under way in many countries, may be accompanied by capacity-building initiatives, presenting an opportunity to promote a nexus approach. Strengthening the capacity of local government organisations may also mitigate against the risk of centralisation of power and influence through nexus integration and coordination.

Further resources

  • This paper was written by Andrew Scott, a Senior Research Fellow at the Overseas Development Institute.

    The paper was reviewed by Sam Bickersteth, Leo Roberts and Ari Huhtula of CDKN. 

    Suggested Citation:

    Scott, A. (2017) Making governance work for water–energy–food nexus approaches. Working Paper. London: Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) (cdkn.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Working-paper_CDKN_Making-governance-work-for-water-energy-food-nexus-approaches.pdf)