event 29 Aug 2018

Nexus Interview // Bassel Daher of Texas A&M University’s Water-Energy-Food Research Group

In this interview, the Nexus Resource Platform speaks with Bassel Daher of Texas A&M University’s Water-Energy-Food Research Group about the article ‘Developing Socio-Techno-Economic-Political (STEP) Solutions for Addressing Resource Nexus Hotspots’ published in 'Sustainability' in February 2018.


Bassel Daher is a key member of Texas A&M University’s Water-Energy-Food Research Group, led by Prof. Rabi H. Mohtar. Since 2016, he has served as the coordinator of the San Antonio Case Studies (SACS) project at Texas A&M’s Water-Energy-Food-Nexus Initiative. While working on his PhD at Texas A&M, Bassel was selected as one of eight young water professionals globally to serve on the Young Scientific Committee of Stockholm World Water Week 2016. In April 2018, Bassel gave a TEDx talk highlighting the need to work across disciplines to address the resource challenges facing our global community – challenging each one of us to contribute to the effort.

Nexus Resource Platform (NRP): In April, you gave a TedX talk with the title ‘How will you choose to contribute?’ that focused in part on the WEF Nexus. What was your motivation behind giving this talk?

Bassel Daher: TED talks are a great way to communicate big ideas simply and succinctly. After several years of addressing questions related to the complex resource challenges facing us globally and my academic and professional journey through engineering, natural resource management and governance, I had a few key messages that I wanted to share.

What are those messages?

The key messages I aimed to communicate were as follows:

  • Engineering know-how alone is not sufficient to address complex interconnected challenges. We also need to focus on the social, economic and political aspects.
  • The early involvement of different stakeholders is critical for co-creating solutions that are implementable and address local needs.
  • Investing genuine time and effort in communicating the knowledge and scientific results to stakeholders and decision makers is crucial.

These messages could be considered general ‘lessons learned’ – how can they be applied to the water-energy-food security Nexus?

Water, energy and food security challenges are very complex and tightly interconnected. Approaching these challenges with a Nexus mind-set is critical to simultaneously ensuring inclusive economic development and sustainable resource use. The WEF Nexus approach facilitates transitioning into more circular economies. However, we still have a long way to go, which is why I included a message to the next generation of engineers, scientists, politicians and lawmakers in the TEDx talk:

‘We not only have the power,
but also the responsibility
to reverse current unsustainable trends’

Addressing such complex interconnected challenges demands that we work across disciplines. Everyone has a role to play regardless of their discipline, age and geographic region. Each person needs to create spaces that allow them to contribute to a more sustainable world. A more sustainable, equitable resolution will only be possible if we work collectively toward addressing these challenges. I wrapped up my TEDx talk with a question to the audience: How will you choose to contribute? I concluded by reiterating my commitment to dedicating my career to working toward a future that provides water, energy and food security for all.

When and how did you join Rabi Mohtar’s Nexus team?

I joined Prof. Mohtar’s Multi-scale Hydrology Group at Purdue University during my graduate studies. This was around the time when the World Economic Forum published the book "Water Security: Water-Energy-Food-Climate Nexus." Prof. Mohtar had authored a chapter in the book introducing the WEF Nexus and I was hooked! I quickly realised the power and potential of connecting the dots, understanding the interlinkages and working across disciplines.

How did you contribute to WEF Nexus research while at Purdue?

A few years after joining Prof. Mohtar’s group, I developed the WEF Nexus Tool 2.0, which quantifies the interconnections between water, energy and food systems. The tool allows users to evaluate and understand the trade-offs associated with different resource allocation scenarios. We have been using it as a main building block for several of the case studies we conducted in recent years. The tool was recently included as part of the United Nations Development Group’s ‘Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Acceleration Tool Kit. It focuses on quantifying the resources required, including water, energy, financial, land and CO2 emissions, for food, energy, water and trade portfolio scenarios.

How did the development of the ‘STEP framework’ come about? What was the initial spark?

An outcome of the many WEF hotspot case studies we worked on over the past few years was that quantifying only physical resources is not sufficient – we must also account for different stakeholder interests and interactions and focus on the ways in which different proposed interventions are governed and financed. The STEP framework offers a conceptual guideline by suggesting a structured, stepwise approach with iterative feedback cycles to guide collaboration between analysts, modellers, ‘Nexus tool’ developers, engineers and social and policy researchers as they work to address resource Nexus hotspots. Each focuses individually on vetting aspects of proposed scenarios related to their own interest or expertise in a stepwise and iterative manner that ultimately helps us reach STEP Nexus solutions.

Your article has quite a complex name, ‘Developing Socio-Techno-Economic-Political (STEP) Solutions for Addressing Resource Nexus Hotspots’. Can you please explain its meaning for our readers?

To elaborate on the title, it is helpful to consider one of the lessons shared in my TEDx talk: Engineering know-how alone is not sufficient to address complex challenges. I learned a similar lesson while working on case studies addressing different WEF Nexus hotspots.

We must understand and quantify the interconnections between physical resource systems and ask the following question: Do I have enough water, land, energy and money to execute a given scenario? The three interconnected resource systems are also affected by players that govern, consume, or manage their supply chains, who in turn also interact with one another. As scientists and change agents, we must understand the interactions between the different types of players to the same extent that we understand the biophysical resource interactions and trade-offs across resource systems.

Can you elaborate on the above point in greater detail?

Different stakeholders make decisions within water, energy and food systems. They come from diverse organisations: government, business, civil society, etc., which means that they inevitably have different goals, value systems and decision-making powers. They also work at varying scales. It is just as important to understand the players involved in decision-making, how they interact, their power dynamics and who, in short, has more ‘muscle’ in the room.

After understanding the power structures, resource conditions and environmental conditions, what is the next step?

Once the biophysical resource and stakeholder landscapes are understood, several potentially feasible scenarios are likely to emerge. To realise and sustain these scenarios, we must ensure the adoption of proper governance structures and financing schemes. We thus arrive at a STEP Nexus solution – one that vets any given scenario in consideration of the associated socio-techno-economic-political (STEP) perspectives by which it is affected.

Earlier, you mentioned the Nexus hotspot case studies you worked on. Can you explain what a ‘Nexus hotspot’ is?

We define a WEF Nexus hotspot in the following way: ‘A Nexus hotspot is a vulnerable sector or region with a defined scale that is facing stresses in one or more of its resource systems due to resource allocations that are at odds with the interconnected nature of the food, energy and water resource systems within them’.

You can find additional details in the article that Prof. Mohtar and I published in Water International in 2016: ‘Water-Energy-Food Nexus Framework for Facilitating Multi-Stakeholder Dialogue’.

In other words, a hotspot represents potential conflict from overlapping pressures: Either within interconnected physical resource systems or between the institutions and organisations governing them. A resource Nexus hotspot emerges when these pressures are managed without the underlying understanding of the inherent interconnections between them.

Have you tried to use the STEP method to train politicians and practitioners?

Over the past two years, while working on the San Antonio Case Studies, we formed an interdisciplinary team at Texas A&M to focus on areas including modelling, governance, water and food, water and energy and trade-off analysis. We ultimately surveyed stakeholders including water officials and representatives from other water, energy and food-related organisations in the San Antonio Region. We invited them to participate in a dialogue in which we presented preliminary analytics and discussed the barriers that result in low levels of communication. This dialogue took place during the Water-Energy-Food Nexus (WEF) Stakeholder Information and Engagement Workshop, held in January 2018 in San Antonio. The focus of the initial meeting was more on sharing initial findings and opening a discussion than on training.

What were your findings?

We found modest levels of communication between stakeholders, despite the high level of competition between them over the same limited water, land and financial resources. These low levels of communication could be attributed to different barriers identified by the stakeholder meeting participants, which included: Differences in planning horizons and language, legal and procedural barriers, among others. As we continue this work toward inclusive stakeholder engagement, we anticipate the further identification of key governance-related factors that can contribute to more inclusive and informed decisions.

Can the Nexus approach really ‘survive’ alongside the SDGs, which have a lot more political weight?

I do not see competition between the two. The Nexus is an approach, a way of thinking, a philosophy of looking at a system of interconnections, while the SDGs are a global agenda, a roadmap, a set of goals for greater social, economic, and environmental sustainability. The Nexus approach is a tool that assists in quantifying the interconnections and potential competition across these goals.

One common emerging theme in the national annual reports on SDGs progress is the need for more integrative planning and greater coherence across planning agencies to avoid improving one of the SDGs to the detriment of another. Planning toward achieving the SDGs in silos, without properly accounting for the interdependencies, would result in producing policies and plans that can hinder the progress of other SDGs.

As nations work toward the 17 goals, they must be aware of the extent of interconnectedness and potential competition between the goals. Plans to achieve the SDGs must reflect an understanding of the interconnections between the physical resource systems and the players involved. Achieving the goals requires innovative plans across sectors, disciplines and scales. A framework that provides a structured approach to guide and facilitate collaboration across these sectors, disciplines and scales is a constructive tool for accomplishing the SDGs.

How do you see the future of the WEF Nexus?

I believe that there is great potential in combining the natural and social sciences and in exploring areas at that interface. There is still unlocked potential and improvements that could be made in the way we communicate complexity. That is in addition to further building on experiences from WEF Nexus research to support the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. I expect that these areas will develop further in the coming years.

With growing pressures on our resource systems and given their interdependence, we can no longer afford to plan within silos. We need to keep building on the lessons learned across different case studies globally and continue updating our toolkits and approaches to arrive at plans and policies that are consistent with our understanding of the level of interdependence of these resources.

Thank you for the interview, Bassel.

Interview conducted by Gerhard Rappold, Editors' Team of the Nexus Resource Platform

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