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Policy brief // An adaptive and context-driven approach to the water, energy and food nexus

By Alfonso Medinilla. This paper discusses the often difficult operationalisation of the water-food-energy nexus thinking, focusing particularly on the politics of cross-sectoral and transboundary cooperation. It builds on research carried out in 2017-2019 on the political economy of WEF nexus synergies and trade-offs, and integrated water resource management (IWRM) in African transboundary river basins. The paper sheds light on the often under-studied political economy dynamics surrounding resource use and cross-sectoral synergies and trade-offs and argues for a more political understanding of WEF nexus policies and their implementation. The paper concludes with eight recommendations for WEF nexus stakeholders and their partners to integrate these lessons in programme design.

Urban Farming flickr

Urban Farming, Ghana. Nana Kofi Acquah for IMWI via Flickr


Since its introduction in 2011, the concept of the water-energy-food (WEF) nexus has quickly taken off in EU external action and development cooperation policy. In the context of climate change and increasing demands on limited resources, the case and need for more integrated management of water, energy and food security are clear. However, this is easier said than done. Implementing nexus approaches is notoriously difficult. It not only requires a more systemic approach to resource management but also substantial reforms both in policy and practice.

This paper looks at the often under-studied political economy dynamics of cross-sectoral and cross-border integration and examines how and why integrated policies often face implementation gaps. It argues for a more adaptive and context-driven approach to the WEF nexus, one that takes the nexus not as the outcome of a perfect masterplan, but as an iterative process of learning through addressing specific problems. This calls for two major changes in the thinking about the WEF nexus, namely (1) bridging technical and political approaches and their respective knowledge communities, and (2) adopting a non-linear, problem-driven approach to WEF nexus reforms and policy implementation. This paper issues a number of recommendations for donor agencies, institutions and the WEF nexus knowledge community to put this into practice.


September 2021




The European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM) is an independent ‘think and do tank’ working on international cooperation and development policy in Europe and Africa. Since 1986 its staff members provide research and analysis, advice and practical support to policymakers and practitioners across Europe and Africa – to make policies work for sustainable and inclusive global development. Its main areas of work include: • European external affairs • African institutions • Security and resilience • Migration • Sustainable food systems • Finance, trade and investment • Regional integration • Private sector engagement.


An adaptive and context-driven approach to the water, energy and food nexus

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