event 20 Jan 2017

Risk // The Critical Role of Risk in Setting Directions for Water, Food and Energy Policy and Research

By Louise Gallagher, James Dalton et al. The sustainable development goals (SDGs) challenge markets, regulators and practitioners to achieve multiple objectives on water, food and energy. This calls for responses that are coordinated and scaled appropriately. Learning from water–energy–food nexus could support much-needed building of links between the separate SDGs.

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(C) flickr / Ashwan Lewis

The concept has highlighted how risks manifest when blinkered development and management of water, food and energy reduce resource security across sectors and far-reaching scales. However, three under-studied dimensions of these risks must be better considered in order to identify leverage points for sustainable development: first, externalities and shared risks across multiple scales; second, innovative government mechanisms for shared risks; and third, negotiating the balance between silos, politics and power in addressing shared risks.


Louise Gallagher, James Dalton, Christian Bréthaut, Tony Allan, Helen Bellfield, Damian Crilly, Katharine Cross, Dipak Gyawali, Detlef Klein, Sophie Laine, Xavier LeFlaive, Lifeng Li, Annukka Lipponen, Nathanial Matthews, Stuart Orr, James Pittock, Claudia Ringler, Mark Smith, David Tickner, Ulrike von Schlippenbach, François Vuille


  • Introduction
  • Externalities and shared risks across multiple scales
  • Innovative governance mechanisms that respond to shared risks
  • Negotiating the balance between silos, politics and power to address shared risks
  • Conclusions


Policy makers and practitioners charged with implementing the sustainable development goals are asking for more useful and usable knowledge that clarifies choices, explores alternatives, and enables decision makers to make responsible decisions under conditions of uncertainty and complexity.

Rather than providing decision makers with ‘one’ answer about how to deal with inter-linkages across the SDGs (which may also be the wrong answer) it may be more helpful to focus on processes of simulating alternative scenarios, trade-off analyses, and explorations into systemic ‘cause and effect’ relationships down supply and value chains. By maturing to consider the three dimensions of food, energy and water security shared risks, ‘nexus thinking’ can improve theoretical and practical understanding of how and where risks emerge across scales, where they are shared or not, pointing the way towards solutions which will work within political as well as technical processes. This should help to identify key leverage points for sustainable development by exploring different options for action and resource allocations amongst ‘winners and losers’ at different points and scales of the water–energy–food nexus.

Pragmatic research and policy development must go hand-in-hand, grounded in sound theory and reflecting multiple perspectives of actors working ‘beyond all disciplines’. Research and development must extend beyond scholars to include the R&D arms of corporations to be effective. Disciplinary silos between hard and soft sciences will have to be overcome to find the combined governance and scientific solutions needed to advance the water, food and energy sustainable development goals.


ScienceDirect website (open access)


December 2016


Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, Volume 23, December 2016, Pages 12–16

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