Policy Papers

Water-Energy-Food Nexus Knowledge Action Network // Research and Engagement Plan

The Development Team of the Water-Energy-Food Nexus Knowledge-Action Network issued the Research and Engagement Plan in March 2018 to shape and guide water-energy-food nexus-related activities under the Future Earth umbrella in the coming years.

Executive Summary

Over the past decade international research and policy circles have been increasingly recognising the need for more integrated research, planning and management of water, energy and food systems to address the interconnected risks to water, energy, and food security. In response, the water-energy-food nexus concept highlights the interactions between these systems, and provides insights into the cross-sectoral implications of single-sector strategies. The need to manage resources in an integrated way has never been as urgent as today. Growing pressures on natural resources are making the interdependencies and tradeoffs between food, water and energy systems, and their interactions with land, climate change and livelihoods, increasingly evident. Understanding their interplay is essential to effectively addressing sustainability challenges. Furthermore, managing food, water and energy systems is key to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and requires a better understanding of the interactions between the goals, both at and across different scales. Providing decision-makers with the multifaceted knowledge to seize all opportunities to enhance synergies and minimise trade-offs is, therefore, a major objective for sustainability science.

Future Earth’s Knowledge-Action Networks are networks of people and organisations, collaborating to build the knowledge and tools needed to tackle the greatest sustainability challenges of our time. In this context, the Water-Energy-Food Nexus Knowledge-Action Network aims to better understand the interactions between water, energy and food systems, their trade-offs and synergies with the goal to promote sustainable and equitable access for all. The present Research and Engagement Plan was developed by an expert group, called the Development Team, to guide and shape nexus-related activities under the umbrella of Future Earth. Nexus challenges are defined as “current or anticipated threats to equitable and sustainable access to energy, water and food whose causes and/or consequences are embedded in the interactions between these three components”. They are the result of the following four factors:

  1. impacts of the modes of production and consumption of water, energy and food,
  2. impacts of poverty and resource scarcity,
  3. impacts of competing claims over natural resources, and
  4. vulnerability to extreme events (e.g. climate hazards, natural disasters, conflicts).

Given the diversity of nexus challenges, their complexity and their increasingly pressing nature, many research paths remain to be explored. Overall, food, energy and water systems and their interactions both at and across different scales remain mainly studied from the supply side, undermining the systemic nature of nexus challenges. Moreover, their systemic nature goes beyond water, energy and food systems, to include environmental and social dimensions, as the root of nexus challenges lies in the unsustainable and inequitable access to these resources. Yet, our knowledge of the environmental dimensions of nexus challenges is fragmented while problems of access, linked to poverty, livelihood issues, inequalities or resource scarcity, are not well understood. 

The Water-Energy-Food Nexus Knowledge-Action Network mobilises the broad range of expertise in the Future Earth community to address complex system interactions, making it well positioned to facilitate collaboration between this community and scientists from other fields, such as the humanities and social sciences or engineering, which are often key in effectively addressing nexus issues. By fostering collaboration between scientists, practitioners and decision-makers working on nexus issues, the Water-Energy-Food Nexus Knowledge-Action Network aims to encourage the application of knowledge into practice. The co-design and co-production of knowledge is however a challenging endeavour, which requires a thoughtful and reflexive approach. In addition, nexus challenges are complex systemic challenges at the crossroads of many diverse, interconnected factors. Hence, the Knowledge-Action Network must find the right balance between embracing complexity and being relevant to decision-makers. The priority activities for the Water-Energy-Food Nexus Knowledge-Action Network include:

  1. A synthesis product on how the various research communities address system interactions,
  2. Training courses and community building programmes promoting integrated approaches in still largely discipline-oriented university curricula, and
  3. Activities to improve knowledge integration across scales to elevate regional perspectives, knowledge and priorities in the global sustainability agenda.

Such activities would also help to avoid local solutions to nexus challenges that simply displace the tradeoffs across scales or global solutions that generate negative externalities when implemented at local scales.


Future Earth website


March 2018


Water-Energy-Food Nexus Knowledge Action Network

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