The Water Energy Food Nexus

From Complexity to Simplicity

25 July 2013 | Damian Crilly and James Dalton
The Nexus

Water uses energy, energy uses water, agriculture needs both and modern society needs all three; and they all rely on infrastructure to manage water. In this way, land, water and energy systems are inter-connected and have become increasingly more complex and dependent on one another. As a result, disturbance and change in one system can destabilise the others. For example, recent extremes of droughts and flood have forced an evaluation of how water infrastructure impacts other sectors – highlighting the need for a ‘nexus based’ multi-disciplinary, cross-sectoral approach to look for ‘win-win’ solutions while balancing environmental, social and economic issues.  As world populations continue to grow, they will need to be serviced with water, energy and food against a backdrop of climate change.

Policy Analysis

In many countries, climate change has created the opportunity to develop new agencies of different sizes, and these are often policy focussed.  This tendency to put climate change, both mitigation and adaptation into ‘new’ agencies falls into the silo trap of separating things to manage them.  This may seem logical in the face of complexity.  However, it overlooks system connectivity, inter-dependence and inter-actions. Climate change mitigation approaches need to consider cross-sectoral impacts – afforestation is a sensible carbon sequestration approach, but how is this integrated into river basin management and water demand scenarios, not just for agricultural needs, but also for energy generation downstream?  For example, in the US, 40% of freshwater withdrawal is required for energy generation. This highlights the need for integrated policy analysis.

The demand for integration that is now present in many policy dialogues belies the fact that many of our public institutions are still divided into ‘silos’, separated by thematic and technical boundaries, principles and practice, often from the top down. In many cases, policy development does not lead, it follows innovation.

Adaptation and Innovation

New science knowledge and system trends infiltrate into the policy arena through individuals and agencies that operate as brokers and transmitters of information.  Technology, for example is not developed in silos, it is developed by market forces and consumer demand building on initial niche entry points.

Remember what the world was like when the first iPod came out?  Now look at the market for these and similar products. This ‘halo-effect’ has equally sparked further innovation and the opening up of technology development and opportunities to new sectors in a competitive marketplace.

Desalination of seawater, as an adaptation solution to water shortages, requires huge amounts of energy.  But it also brings with it technological innovation and business opportunities, especially in countries that can afford it, like the oil rich Middle East.  It is a different story in Pacific Islands that are heavily reliant on diesel imports for energy needs and often suffer from offshore technical ‘solutions’ that are not fit for the natural extremes of climate variability in the Pacific region.

Whilst science calls for yet “more research” and as the evidence is gathered, the impacts are being felt.  It is not yet clear if public policy has been able to keep up with the new debates, agendas and change agents. Is the answer really “more water storage”?   

We need to get smarter on these nexus challenges.  We need science to help us better understand water and energy demand trajectories in river basins to maintain productive landscapes that can meet economic demands.  We need to know what food to grow where.  We need to use rainfall much better than we are. We need to know what technologies work best at what scale, and who can advise on using them.  We need to identify opportunities for recycling water and conjunctive use and where we can use renewable energy technologies (e.g. in-pipe turbine technology).  And we need to do this without completely degrading our environment - so we can continue to grow and develop, and not find ourselves yo-yoing between boom and bust.

River Basin Systems

There is a need to better understand river basins as complex systems.  The pressures on land and water resources also create opportunities for the private and public sectors to collaborate with a common interest in reducing natural resource risks and developing a more sustainable future. But solutions to these are not going to be solved by the water community alone.  The challenges are not all controlled by water agencies. Most water institutions are not mandated and many water policies are not comprehensive or integrated enough to address these “messy problems”. 

We propose that the water-energy-food nexus is the entry point into recognising river basins as systems where water flows across them physically and through the economy as goods and services.  Solutions to enhance how this system functions including optimising the use, connectivity and sharing of infrastructure and technology solutions.

A focus on a systems approach would, we argue, lead to the better application of sustainable integrated resources management across the water-energy-food sectors.  The dialogue around the nexus challenges allow the concept of water connectivity between sectors to become the process of facilitation – water becomes the mediating subject to better understand the interconnected policy areas.  The pinch points between sectors where water becomes the contested resources can become the centre of policy and institutional attention.

So how can we take what appears to be complex across the water-energy-food domains and structure it in a way that makes it more understandable, and therefore useable?  Suggestions from the recent Infrastructure in the Nexus Dialogue Workshop in Nairobi include:

  • Bridging institutional and thematic silos will require incentives to make the boundaries more seamless in delivery, and clearer in mandate, to overcome the problems with short term sectoral optimisation through better coordination and policy coherence.  For the Niger Basin a key suggestion was to link water, energy and land policies together to create the ‘space’ for institutional integration.
  • Partnerships, across the water-energy-food domains between public, private, civil society and funding agencies to achieve shared outcomes, and which can operate as transmitters of concerns and solutions across conventional agency silos.  Partnerships operate at different scales and operate for different reasons and at different times – they should be viewed as a process to achieve shared outcomes.  In the Lake Victoria Basin, partnerships were seen as key to mobilise the capacity required to manage infrastructure solutions for water and energy services.
  • Public sector focus could be better targeted at inter-sectoral coordination and incentives for cooperation across sectors to drive partnerships and more innovation across the water-energy-food domains.  Regulation must also be used to innovate in economies where market instruments need updating.
  • Private sector can drive innovation and mobilise knowledge but needs to better recognise its role in joint management decisions around water for multiple uses, especially around water risks to business, and societal and environmental needs.  Stewardship approaches need to be mobilised and integrated across the public, private, civil society and funding communities.  Failure to recognise and manage the water, energy, food and land interactions brings risks to all.  In the Pangani Basin in Tanzania, business investors should be included in helping to plan water and energy supplies.
  • Harnessing better public sector integration to help frame the operating space for business should make it easier to identify where innovation can take place and be transferred into national and regional markets.  Decentralised options for energy and water connectivity should be considered part of an overall network in river basins, to use a systemic approach and connect water conveyance, treatment, and re-use throughout river basins.
  • Knowledge and technology need to be shared internationally and regionally to better provide the range of possible solutions, and open up new areas of innovation and development (i.e. crowd sourcing may be one way to gather solutions at certain scales, building on best practice cases and experience).  We need to leverage what we know within silos, for benefits across them.
  • Restore river basins and supporting ecosystems to ensure natural cycles and flows in river basins are recognised within the economy of water, energy and land management.  Infrastructure is not just what we build, it is also the ecosystems we rely on to clean our water before it enters turbines, to store our floodwater flows, and to irrigate our crops.

The opportunity that presents itself now is for us to optimise not just technological solutions, but to link better small scale solutions to larger basin impacts, to bring cities and municipalities into the discussion around river basin futures to maximise our institutions and partnerships.  We need to recast the enabling environment and institutional framework of resource management in a way that allows infrastructure and technological choices across the land, water, energy nexus to work in supporting our economic drivers, and to avoid further damage to our natural ecosystems.


This blog is intended as an information document only.  It does not represent the views of the membership of IWA or IUCN as a whole, and does not constitute formal policy of IWA or IUCN.