event 02 Dec 2021

Research Article // The Five Ws of the Water-Energy-Food Nexus: A Reflexive Approach to Enable the Production of Actionable Knowledge

With this contribution, the authors offer an interpretation of the literature on the nexus that is accessible, and not overly specialized, with the intention of encouraging academics and non-academics to engage in a dialogue and reflect on their decision-making in nexus research. The authors have provided important insights that support and justify the co-production of actionable knowledge in the nexus in order to facilitate the development of sustainable solutions.

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Figure 2: Broad connections between the five Ws of nexus research. While “identify” and “align” are more self-explanatory for the diagram, “integrate” here indicates a process of inclusion of other relevant perspectives/knowledge from academic and non-academic actors/sources.


The water-energy-food nexus is now a popular approach in the sustainability field. However, whereas the nexus calls for more holistic, inter- and transdisciplinary approaches, the research produced over the past decade has been fragmented and specialized. Furthermore, there is still a gap between the nexus as a descriptive and analytical concept and its operationalization. Nexus research needs a shift from “thinking” to “action,” which the authors understand as the production of actionable knowledge. This paper delves into the literature and presents five “W” questions as an iterative heuristic for the nexus concept to encourage reflexivity and inter-and transdisciplinary dialogue, while aiming at the production of actionable knowledge. The authors draw on the literature to discuss the five “W” questions of the nexus, namely: (i) Why, in which they explore the purpose of nexus research for actionable knowledge; (ii) What, in which they explore the material aspect of the nexus and the interactions between water, energy and food systems; (iii) Where, in which they discuss issues of scale, interactions between scales, and the geographical context of the nexus; (iv) When, in which they consider temporal dimensions of nexus research with a particular emphasis on intergenerational trade-offs, and (v) Who, which focuses on nexus stakeholders and the importance of understanding issues of justice and equity. Finally, the authors discuss the connections and dependencies between the five Ws, reinforcing the importance for researchers to reflect on their decision-making and engage in inter- and transdisciplinary debate to enable nexus action.


September 2021


Frontiers in Water


Dalla Fontana, M., Wahl, D., Moreira, F. D. A., Offermans, A., Ness, B., Malheiros, T. F., & Di Giulio, G. M. The five Ws of the water-energy-food nexus: a reflexive approach to enable the production of actionable knowledge. Frontiers in Water, 124.


You can download the full article here.

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