The Nexus Dialogue


2013 | Damian Crilly

Water, energy and food systems are inter-connected and inter-dependent. Water and energy is needed to grow food, water is needed in energy production, energy is needed to treat and move water. The ‘Nexus’ is how and where these systems intersect. These systems have become increasingly more complex and dependent upon one another. As a result, a disturbance in one system can destabilise the others. Recent extreme weather events have demonstrated the extent of the inter-connections and inter-dependencies between the water, energy and food systems, highlighting the need for a ‘Nexus-Based Approach’.

Experience in river basins around the world has shown how sustainable development is often undercut by a failure to account for inter-dependencies at the nexus of water, food and energy security as well as inter-related costs of ecosystem degradation. Potential benefits from optimizing water infrastructure for multiple purposes are widely overlooked. Pressures on water resources are intensifying because of accelerating demand and climate change. To compound this there is a distinct lack of consensus on best practices, tools, technologies and innovations. This lack of consensus has become a major obstacle

Global population is set to increase to around 9 billion by the middle of this century. This population increase will need to be serviced with water, energy and food against a backdrop of climate change. It will therefore become increasingly important for us to achieve a sustainable balance between the water, energy and food systems. As global populations continue to grow, addressing the relationship between water, energy and food is going to become more and more of an issue. This further highlights the need for nexus based approach solutions.

The Bonn 2011 international Conference “The Water Energy and Food Security Nexus - Solutions for the Green Economy” recognized the need for new approaches to address the inter-connections within the water, energy and food security. There is a growing increased interest in investing in water infrastructure in different parts of the world because of concerns around water storage, water supply and flood protection for example, as well as food security, population growth and the need for climate change adaptation. A rich array of experience and practical knowledge exists across professional fields including farming, energy-production, natural resource management, and engineering. However, the challenge is actively bringing these together to provide learning, knowledge exchange and moving to practical action.

The Nexus Dialogue on Water Infrastructure Solutions ( is a partnership project by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the International Water Association (IWA). The Dialogue is a follow up to a commitment made at the Bonn 2011 conference. It is designed to establish a global platform to stimulate ideas and exchanges of experience on best practices and optimisation of multi-purpose water infrastructure (including built and natural infrastructure) solutions for water, energy and food security.

In addition to thinking about water infrastructure, the Dialogue is interested in understanding what the broader set of options and technologies might be that work well across the water, food and energy sectors. Examples might include:

  • Using agriculture waste as a feedstock for biogas generators in wastewater treatment plants
  • Development of technology to reduce the amount of water required for solar generation
  • Investments in water reuse to provide an additional water source for industry and agriculture in water scarce areas.

The central challenges of the nexus include:

  • How to optimize water infrastructure solutions, including built and natural infrastrucutre, for overall benefits to people, nature, and sustainable, climate-resilient development?
  • How to move from discussions about the existence of the water, energy and food nexus, to forming new partnerships that can actively address the nexus in a localized context?
  • How can policy-makers, researchers and practitioners operationalize the nexus?

Increasing recognition of these challenges will lead to greater pressure for multi-purpose water infrastructure and technical solutions. Rapidly growing demand for more energy, food, and land, means we must not only look at how infrastructure serves society now, but also in the context of a changing climate and other uncertainties. Demands on infrastructure in the future will be complex, multi-functional, and integrated across sectors. These changing demands mean that in many parts of the world, managing and developing water infrastructure like we have in the past will no longer meet countries’ needs.

The Dialogue will explore how built and natural infrastructure along with technology can work together in solutions for water, energy and food security. There are opportunities to understand where and how to make more use of natural infrastructure solutions. Natural infrastructure includes well-functioning catchments, floodplains and wetlands. The services these provide support built infrastructure. For example, the maintenance of catchment forest areas controls soil erosion and reduces sedimentation of downstream reservoirs.

Optimisation of multi-purpose water infrastructure will require flexibility through adaptation to new rules and regulations, but it also needs changes in attitudes. For example, building a reservoir to store water upstream may provide for water supply throughout the year but can affect the flooding regime that replenishes soil water for agricultural production. A different approach could include combining the engineering of infrastructure with management of natural assets, such as releasing water downstream to mimic the natural flow regime. Or it could explore technologies on how to improve irrigation efficiency to reduce water loss.

Along with educating and advancing thinking on infrastructure and the nexus, the Dialogue will provide the opportunity to catalyse a number of partnerships and proposals that enable follow up discussion to determine how to apply analysis of tools, and how to move to the second stage of designing and setting up solutions around nexus issues. The Dialogue will host workshops in Africa, Asia, and Latin America throughout 2013, culminating in an International Conference on Water, Energy and Food in 2014. The conference will feature water infrastructure and technology solutions for optimization across the nexus. The conference will be a major milestone in creating new pathways for water infrastructure planning, investments and operations to meet the integrated challenge of water, energy and food security.