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Nexus Blog // Can nexus avoid the fate of IWRM?

Is the nexus approach the harbinger of a transformative paradigm shift? Dipak Gyawali argues it promises to be the start of such a new journey for both academia and activists but is fraught with pitfalls of old habits and entrenched hegemonies.


Environmentalists have always emphasized the interconnectedness of natural resources. Nexus as a concept has been around for decades. It found new life when the business community discovered the disastrous domino effect cascading through different sectors of the economy with the 2008 financial crisis. A fortuitous convergence of thinking between business and activist communities has broadened the support for intersectoral, i.e. "nexus", solutions. This is potentially unlike the equally laudable integrated water management (IWRM) paradigm which was hijacked by water agencies to prevent radical transformation by focusing on technocratic and procedural solutions.

Examples abound of projects designed and implemented within narrow disciplinary or departmental silos that failed to incorporate important benefits or unknowingly caused harm. However, when one looks for good examples of nexus planning and implementation, they are difficult to find. So, what is new with the nexus paradigm? At its core lie much-ignored aspects of governance: moving away from technocratic fixes of "wicked" problems; recognizing complex trade-offs; replacing faith in full control with flexibility and adaptive management; and giving equal primacy to not-easily quantifiable values of ethics and justice arrived at by listening to marginalized grassroot voices.

Unlike IWRM, which had water as the center of attention and the river basin as the theater of integrated management, nexus broadens the field to energy, food, transport, health, climate change, and much more. This nexus focus across physically dissimilar sectors and wide geographical spread opens up both rich new possibilities and bewildering conceptual and methodological challenges.

For example, linking water and energy inevitably brings in climate change: the energy sector is a major cause, but social and economic impacts are mainly felt through the water sector. It is not just changing flood-drought intensity and frequency, but also changes in humidity/soil moisture leading to the destruction of old cropping practices, prolific spread of invasive species, urban water shortages, disease pandemics, etc. The energy sector has dominated the climate discourse with its problem definition (average temperature rise) and solution (mitigation and shift to renewables). Could a nexus approach to, for example, multiple forms of water storage for multiple uses – from wetlands and water harvesting to groundwater and storage dams –make a better contribution to climate accords by killing several birds with one stone?

Closer to home for this writer, the Indian government recently passed an Act to make the River Ganga (along with 110 other rivers) navigable year-round, which is impossible without storage of monsoon flows in Nepal. Will this see an alliance of commercial interests looking for cheap, energy-efficient transport with environmentalists battling an entrenched irrigation bureaucracy that vows not to let a drop be wasted to the sea? A nexus approach to environmental politics would certainly open up that possibility in the currently moribund transboundary negotiations between Nepal, Bangladesh and India.

Such a nexused outcome is neither inevitable nor easy. As with IWRM, mainstream analysts in big corporations and government agencies are likely to frame the nexus problem as manageable through the same old technocratic tools of methodological individualism – expert modelling using efficiency-driven criteria – and market myopia, which does not bode well. Nexus is in danger of getting enmeshed within the same comfort zone as IWRM, of silo practitioners filtering out uncomfortable knowledge around social injustice and powerful hegemonies that marginalize the weak.

Where would a more nexused journey start from?

I argue that any opportunity to transcend silos and practice a real nexus approach can come about in one of three ways: 1) by the serendipitous appearance of enlightened statesmen; 2) during disasters and major disruptions when silo thinking's limitations get exposed (which seems to be happening during the Covid-19 lock-down); or 3) by reforming institutional arrangements to reflect genuine pluralism in management styles.

This third avenue, re-tooling governance, is the most challenging but ultimately most sustainable path to implementing nexus solutions. It will require government agency, market and civic players to be nudged towards a genuine partnership of public-private-civic "constructive engagement". This does not happen naturally, but it lies at the very core of natural resource and environmental politics. In Nepal, the success of community electricity distribution (some run by women's groups operating agriculture cooperatives or community forestry programs) is an example of change through effective nexus politics.

Bureaucratic agencies with their penchant for control and market individualism focused on monetary profit are conservative forces of silo thinking and practice. However, they can be nudged towards a nexus approach by a coalition of civic society partners. Academics engaging in trans-disciplinary research and advocacy can influence and support journalists and politicians who often need to consider multiple interlinkages in their work. Trans-disciplinary academia promotes "problem feeding" from one discipline (and thus one silo) to another, to redefine the nature of the solution they would otherwise have promoted. This of course is somewhat theoretical.

In practice, getting powerful technocratic bureaucracies to open themselves up to the lived experiences of the marginalized will be a very political process, of different intensities in varied societies. Success or failure (or probably something in between) of the nexus approach, and avoiding the fate of IWRM, will be determined by the nature, scale and intensity of the engagement, which is bound to be clumsy, as all political processes are.

This article was originally published on the website of Water-Alternatives and is republished with the authors permission.

Dipak Gyawali is a hydropower engineer-political economist, an academician with Nepal Academy of Science and Technology and used to chair Nepal Water Conservation Foundation. He was Nepal's minister for water resources in 2002/2003.

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