event 01 Nov 2020

Publication // Development of Water-Energy-Food Nexus Index and its Application to South Africa and the Southern African Development Community

By Water Research Commission (WRC). This report presents the development of an index with the WEF nexus as its guiding framework. It is applied to South Africa and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region for assessing national progress towards the constituent Sustainable Development Goals and to facilitate integrated sustainability planning and policy development at both national and regional levels.

category Research Papers, Publications and Books category Tools and Databases tag Nexus Methodology tag Modelling and Assessment tag Governance tag Governance of the Nexus tag SDGs globe Africa globe Southern Africa
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Executive Summary

Due to the exponential growth in the global population and economic development since the industrial revolution, increasing pressure has been placed on natural resources, with various publications warning that vital planetary boundaries are being exceeded. Following the 2008 financial crisis, concerns have been raised that if finite resources such as water are not effectively managed then the environment, livelihoods and economic development will be detrimentally impacted. The interdependency of water, energy and food security has also been highlighted, and since 2011 significant attention has been given to the water-energyfood (WEF) nexus in academic, policy, regulatory and development fraternities. The WEF nexus is a multi-centric lens through which to assess sustainable development and integrated resource management. This approach has direct links to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), principally SDGs 2, 6 and 7. Because the WEF nexus has constituents that are measured in different units, and at different spatial and temporal scales, there is a need to normalise indicators from each of these sectors before integrating them. One such method is the development of a composite indicator (or index), and this report presents the development of an index with the WEF nexus as its guiding framework. The methodology that has been employed in constructing the proposed composite indicator is that of the Joint Research Centre’s Competence Centre on Composite Indicators and Scoreboards (JRC-COIN).

In the development of the proposed WEF Nexus Index, a total of 87 indicators relevant to an anthropocentric WEF nexus framework (that was developed as part of this project) were reviewed to ascertain their relevance and data availability. Following an iterative process, a total of 21 indicators were selected for inclusion in the proposed composite indicator, with adequate data being available for 170 countries. The WEF Nexus Index values per country are plotted on the following world map:

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Once the results of the WEF Nexus Index were determined, these results were plotted on two separate graphs against the SDG Index and the Human Development Index (HDI). The Rsquared values for the two plots are 0.72 and 0.66 respectively. If these R-squared values were too high, i.e. approaching unity, then the WEF Nexus Index would be rendered redundant. These graphs, however, yield interesting insights. In the plot of HDI versus the WEF Nexus Index, presented below, countries that plot above the regression line typically have living standards (or human development) that exceed their available domestic resource base, e.g. Singapore and Hong Kong. The corollary is true of nations that plot below the regression line.

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The top twenty ranking nations based on the WEF Nexus Index calculation are dominated by first-world countries, with Norway, New Zealand and Sweden ranking highest. Five South American countries feature in the top twenty, with Brazil being the highest placed of these. One Asian nation (Malaysia) features in the top twenty, while no African nations make this list. Three-quarters of the bottom twenty ranking nations are from Africa.

South Africa ranks 72nd of the 170 nations assessed. While South Africa ranked relatively well in terms of its “Water-access” and “Food-access” sub-pillars, it performs comparatively poorly in the two associated “Availability” sub-pillars. Similarly, although the proportion of South Africans with access to electricity is relatively high, much of this energy is generated by burning fossil fuels. Because of this, the country has a high level of CO2 emissions. Because the “Energy-Access” sub-pillar is linked to SDG 7 (access to clean, modern, affordable energy), the relatively high level of access to electricity in this country is to a large degree nullified in this sub-pillar by the high emissions and low level of renewable energy adoption.

The ranking of SADC countries1 according to their respective WEF Nexus Index values has South Africa ranking highest, while Madagascar is lowest at 165th, as presented in the following table. Also shown in this table are the SDG Index and HDI values for the fifteen SADC countries listed.

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With much of the developed world having built their nations on the foundation of fossil-fuelbased energy generation, it is evident that the dearth of coal in Africa outside of South Africa has crippled its development and contributed to a poverty trap. Ironically, much of the world is moving away from coal-fired power generation, but they can do so because they have reached the point where they can afford to do so. Access to energy is indeed a pivotal enabler of economic development. In reviewing the constituent indicators of the WEF Nexus Index it is evident that most SADC nations are not utilising their available freshwater. If they could gain significantly broader access to affordable, modern, renewable energy, then a great benefit could result in terms of food production and economic development. The “Foodavailability” sub-pillar is generally the poorest performing sub-pillar within the WEF Nexus Index for SADC countries.

By following the JRC-COIN process, the proposed composite indicator has been developed sensibly and transparently. If the WEF Nexus Index results are utilised responsibly they can contribute to the sustainable development and integrated resource management discourse.


February 2020


Water Research Commission (WRC)



Tina Schmiers


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