How can we harness the nexus to address water security?

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24 July 2014 | Mike Muller

Business as usual in water management will not provide adequate water security, upon which our global economy relies ever more heavily.  And part of the business as usual that needs to be shaken up is the process-based integrated water resource management (IWRM) that has dominated discourse on water management over the past 20 years.

That is now happening.

Business leaders have watched with growing alarm as developing economies ground to a halt because of power shortages – while mobilization of abundant hydropower resources was bogged down by interminable “consultation” processes. They saw the damage that was being done to vulnerable farming communities whose lack of access to reliable water supplies to complement uncertain rainfall meant that their production and their incomes were as fickle as the weather.

Slide by Mike Muller
The Nexus does not help to address critical issues such as nature. How can hydropower dams be designed to support environmental flows if nature is not a key objective? Slide by Mike Muller.

As business people, they recognized that, while process is important, outcomes are what matters and the mantra of IWRM was not delivering. That’s why the World Economic Forum launched the Nexus concept in 2008.

And if there were any doubters, events like the 2011 Thailand floods (which cost an estimated US$45.7 billion in economic damages and losses, making it the fourth costliest disaster in history) have helped to keep water security high on the agenda. 

IWRM vs Nexus Approach: important lessons

The dominant version of IWRM was the product of lobbyists at a preparatory conference for the Rio Earth Summit in Dublin in 1992. They emphasized eco-system protection and conservation; promoted stakeholder participation in planning outside of government systems; and opposed infrastructure development.

The Dublin recommendations, which were not accepted by the Rio conference, blocked much development due to their heavy environmental focus and insistence on a hydro-centric process that excluded many interest groups.  This encouraged donors to disregard local politics and infrastructure development, often ignoring the preferences and priorities of the large majority of stakeholders who were not involved. As a result, this Dublin IWRM has largely failed to meet societal needs.

In this context, the emergence of the Nexus makes sense. In Africa, people have long understood the potential synergy between energy development and water resources. The very notion that we could address agriculture and food security without considering the contribution of water resource development and management is bizarre.

What the discourse about the water-energy-food Nexus does is to help us to focus back onto practical challenges.  It allows us to look at water and its management from the perspective of society rather than from that of a small group of (often self-selected) water custodians.

Certainly, the Nexus helps us to identify how water management can contribute to important goals of food and energy security and offers to do this in a more sustainable manner – hydropower is one of Africa’s great untapped energy resources and, although it must be developed with care for its social and local environmental impacts, it will enable Africa to sustain the current high proportion of renewables in its energy mix.

This focuses attention on the need for strengthened water resource management at all levels.  Water resource administrations are normally almost invisible and low priority because they don’t deliver immediate outcomes.  But they are the foundation on which water-related activities are built. They need to be able to engage with other sectors, to connect with, inform and learn from social and economic actors, otherwise they will remain sidelined in a water ghetto. 

The Nexus: gaps to fill

This also highlights that the Nexus is not a comprehensive framework for water management, which means it should be used with caution. Its focus on just two key water-using sectors loses some of the important elements of integration that were part of the original concept of integrated management, before it was hijacked by the Dublin lobbyists.

The Nexus does not help to address critical issues such as nature – how can hydropower dams be designed to support environmental flows if nature is not a key objective.  Nor does it address water-related hazards – how can hydropower dams be used to mitigate floods and to sustain navigation on important rivers in dry seasons? What about the fastest growing uses – water for urban needs?  And the challenge of maintaining the quality of water resources?  Way back in 1977, the UN Water Conference at Mar del Plata endorsed the original concept of integration, which addressed these challenges that the Nexus misses through its exclusive focus on food and energy.

Work in Africa (i.e.  the Zambezi and Nile), has shown that an important building block in transboundary rivers are multi-sector opportunity studies which look precisely at the different elements and who may benefit from them as the way to promote effective cooperation. Working cooperatively with agriculture and energy sectors, we can see how hydropower generation can be complementary to irrigation, can reduce floods and help to manage water quality challenges while still conserving critical biodiversity and allowing other uses.

In short, while the Nexus does not provide a comprehensive solution to the challenge of water security it does offer a way forward.

How can we harness the Nexus to address water security?

The Nexus has the strength of communication behind it; it appeals to public emotions and practical outcomes through its focus on food, water, climate and energy.  It provides a platform for us to address water security, but we must learn how to use it effectively: addressing water security by starting with the resource itself.

To do that, we should use the focus on energy and food priorities to highlight what needs to be done. So we should emphasize that energy and food are just part of the larger goal of water security. To achieve that, we must strengthen and reorient water management institutions, making it clear that their job is to serve and support social and economic activities, not to do all the work themselves.

Those institutions must concentrate on monitoring and understanding the water resources of which they are societies’ custodians, tracking what water we have, how it is used and what trends are emerging. That information should in turn guide the investments in the hard infrastructure and soft management instruments that we will need as a global community if we are to achieve the goal of water security and meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world.

So the Nexus is not a new approach to water resource management. But it is a valuable reminder of the need to get water resource management back to basics, aiming for the kind of developmental outcomes that matter – adequate food, clean energy and a reliable supply of water.

This blog was originally posted on the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems website . To read the original blog, click here.