The Green Revolution brought into sharp focus the growing dependencies between water, energy and food security in the Global South. Agriculture production systems shifted from low- to high-input systems and energy availability became an increasing constraint on water use and land fertility within food production. Around the same time, concern also grew over freshwater stress and shortages caused by agricultural and industrial expansion in the Global North.
Interest in the Nexus of water, energy, and food security has re-emerged in recent years, in part due to growing degradation and over-exploitation of natural resources, but also continued biofuel production, mechanisation of agriculture, and hydropower development which have strengthened dependencies across the ‘water-energy-food’ system.
Management of the Water-Energy-Food (WEF) Nexus has started to eclipse sustainability as the ultimate objective of natural resource governance. Within my recent paper, I warn of the pitfalls of adopting such an approach.
The opportunity cost of the Nexus agenda is large and overlooked. The WEF Nexus concept assigns primary importance to indirect pathways of resource use and secondary importance to direct pressures facing water, energy, land and climate systems. This partiality of the WEF Nexus ignores potentially significant pathways of resource use. For example, economy-wide analysis has found water-energy dependencies constitute only 1% of total water and energy resource use within China and the USA. Within my own research, I have observed a similar mismatch between the networks of water, energy, and land use within different sectors (including food, textiles, construction, and services) which permit pressures on individual Nexus dimensions (e.g. water, energy, land and atmosphere) to be significant despite Nexus linkages appearing weak. Subscribing to a Nexus approach overlooks these major opportunities to improve environmental sustainability.
I do not think we need to abandon the Nexus concept. The Nexus agenda has sparked an interesting and necessary discussion around the reconciliation of environmental goals. However, to date, the theoretical and empirical contribution of the Nexus agenda offer a blunt tool to navigate this problem space.
To offer a useful paradigm for environmental management, we need to review the Nexus concept with a deeper understanding of how resource stocks, flows, and decisions connect different actors within the global economy. The link between consumption decisions and their impact on the environment, is often separated by a large network of supply chains, with water, energy, and land use occurring and interacting at different spatial scales. We should not assume there exists a sweet spot for tackling environmental impacts concurrently. This is simply an artefact of the relational emphasis of the Nexus concept. Disparate policy measures, upstream and downstream supply chains, may be our best bet to collectively level the overall footprint of human activity on the environment.
In order to better explore opportunities for integrated environmental management, the Nexus agenda needs to adopt a systemic view of resource use. Instead of concentrating on indirect resource use pathways, Nexus analysis should be concerned with critical pathways of resource use, which may or may not embody resource use feedbacks. Instead of focusing only on food system sustainability, Nexus analysis should account for natural resource competition for other services (e.g. construction, electronic, and clothing) and priorities (e.g. environmental conservation and urban development). Effective management of the WEF linkages might promote sustainable allocation of natural resources, but it does not necessarily guarantee it, efficiently or equitably. Without a systemic approach, the additional value of the Nexus concept to environmental management remains unclear.
About the author
Oliver Taherzadeh is a PhD candidate at the Department of Geography at the University of Cambridge. He is interested in how environmental risks connect different actors within the global economy. His PhD explores this in relation to integrated water, climate, and land management. Prior to starting his PhD, he worked as a researcher in the Sustainable Consumption and Production Group at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI). There his research sought to advance policy coherence and accountability within the UN SDGs agenda and supply chain management.