Nexus Interview // From Climate Change to Covid19: How the Nexus Approach can enhance Sustainable Development
Claudia Ringler is the Deputy Director of the Environment and Production Technology Division at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), while also co-leading the institute´s water research program. She has been involved in several WEF-Nexus projects in the past and cooperated with the NRD program in the Niger Basin. This interview features some of her experiences while working in the Nexus field as well as the future challenges and prospects in times of Covid19 and climate change.
Ms Ringler, your work has led you out to countries all over the world. Where do you see the most urgent needs for resilience when it comes to water, energy and food security?
In my opinion, clearly the countries that are the most water and energy scarce and that face food shortages would benefit the most from the Nexus approach. Often, these are also the countries that are also the most in need of climate resilience. I worked in Pakistan before, the country used to be much more energy, food and water secure, but due to political changes and shifts in investments, Pakistan’s energy security has dramatically declined. Farmers used to rely on electrical pumps for irrigation, but had to switch to diesel pumps as households were cut off from the electricity grid for up to 18 hours. That of course also affected the food security of the country. The problem is that if you move backwards in one sector, like in the case of Pakistan, you immediately move back in the other sectors.
What was the first project where you implemented the Nexus approach? Can you share a favorite case project you experienced / developed in the Nexus sector?
When I now look back, I would say that my dissertation was the first WEF Nexus project that I have led myself. The overall focus of the project was on river basin management in the Mekong River Basin, using hydro-economic modelling of alternative water management interventions, that affected irrigated food production and hydroelectric production, the key energy source. This was 10 years before the 2011 Bonn Nexus Conference, where the approach was put onto a public stage, so back then, the project was not even called a “Nexus Project”.
You also worked together with the Nexus Regional Dialogues Programme in the Niger Basin. What are the biggest Nexus potentials and challenges in that area?
The Niger Basin has severe food shortages and if you would ask the majority of households whether they are water secure, they would most likely answer “No”. In addition, the access to energy is also highly limited. The Niger Basin is one of the regions where investments in water security will likewise support food security and to some extend energy security. Let’s take a very Nexus-like example: small-scale solar-powered irrigation. There are now new panels that can be used both for solar pumping of water for irrigation and be used for powering cell phones or other appliances when not in used in the fields.
At the same time, the overall goal of the countries in Western Africa is food security. And there, the countries might be narrowing their thinking as this is often directly connected to increasing rice production. However, if the countries would think more broadly, and consider crops like sorghum or millet as an alternative, food security could be acquired much easier as these crops need less water and are more climate resistant. Furthermore, fish production could play a much bigger role in these countries as a contribution to food security and dietary diversification. Here, the energy component comes into play, as energy is needed for cold storage or drying of fish and, depending on the crop, for irrigation.
Furthermore, the Niger Basin Authority (NBA) plays an important stabilizing factor in the region that is currently beset by conflicts and civil strife. The NBA brings together government agencies and ministries of the nine riparian states on a regular basis for discussions in important topics concerning he basin. The work of GIZ with the NBA is very important, but there is also a large need for capacity building of NBA staff on resource modelling to support the management of erosion and desertification as well as for NBA assessment of interlinked challenges around hydroelectric production, flooding, river transportation and fisheries production.
Connection between Nexus and Climate
You have also been working on climate change and the impacts of global warming – how would you describe its connection with the WEF-Nexus?
Climate Change and the Nexus approach are very much connected with each other. Let’s take the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 of the United States that focused biofuels as an example: The policies were passed to improve energy security through increased production of biofuels. At the same time, it was intended to increase the nation's overall sustainability and share of renewable energy. It was seen as a way to potentially reduce the impacts of climate change through increased biofuel use and corresponding lower fossil fuel extraction.
But later studies have shown that there were major land-use changes due to the high demand in biofuels. These land-use changes included, in the US, the move of land out of the conservation program and into maize production with high fertilizer application, and elsewhere in the world, similar policy decisions led to the transformation of forests to fields for the cultivation of biodiesel. These policy decisions helped propel the Nexus forward because food producers saw themselves in competition with biofuels producers, and thus in competition over land and water resources.
Climate change also directly affects precipitation patterns, they become more uncertain and make it difficult to grow crops in rainfed environments. Reduced water availability directly affects crops, e.g. through drought and heat stress. Also, energy is affected, specifically traditional energy systems, where cooling water is needed. All these interlinkages are so important that we cannot imagine the Nexus without considering climate change. And at the same time any study on climate change directly feeds back to the Nexus.
What are some of the lessons learnt you can give us on the way that might help workers in the Nexus field get their message across?
Let’s take Covid-19, it is causing huge income shocks and income declines and that again means that budgets are smaller and people as well as governments have to act more economically. The Nexus approach will gain prominence again because if, for example, water and food security can be tackled with one single energy security intervention, governments will go for the solution that saves money and tackles several problems at the same time.
In terms of messages on how to move forward on Nexus, I think one thing I learned with the NBA where we had government officials from 9 countries participating and identifying Nexus criteria for their operational investment plan, is to use very simple tools. Complex modelling is good for researchers, sometimes we can back up simple tools with modelling, but we have to use tools that every policy maker and people from different sectors and backgrounds can grasp within 5-10 minutes, otherwise the tool will not be taken seriously.
One of these tools we were able to use in the NBA work was the ROAD framework linked to the ICSU 7 Point Scale. The scale simply allows you to classify the implications of intervention one is planning for food, energy and water security as well as environmental sustainability. Just going through the Operational Plan and having participants tell us what they think the interventions will do by identifying the interlinkages really made a big difference for everyone. At the end of the workshop there was a strong support for the Nexus approach, and improved understanding that one intervention might support one sectors' security but might adversely affect another sector’s outcome. Based on this, considerations on mitigating these risks can be introduced.
Another important takeaway is that the environmental impact should be always considered within the Nexus approach. We did this with the NBA, and from the beginning on we asked the participants to not only rank interventions for their water, energy and food security, but to also rank them for their sustainability and environmental impact. It is very easily forgotten, and it is very important to make it explicit. It should always be considered because otherwise challenges could be created unintentionally.
Another important issue to mention is that the Nexus approach does not work everywhere and for every problem. It should thus only be used if there is a clear need or potential. The Nexus approach is there for solving problems, e.g. specific challenges a river basin agency, a farmer or a policy maker has, not only for showing challenges without solutions. Among the many studies that have been conducted so far, the majority have not gone to a stage focused on offering solutions for the problems identified. They got stuck at showing the challenges. And that unfortunately is not helpful. We cannot solve all problems, there is no such thing as a silver bullet, but the Nexus concept should not only improve understanding but also move discussions forward, toward solutions.
What are the biggest strengths/challenges of the Nexus approach in your view? What could be done to overcome them?
First of all, there are basic challenges that need to be overcome, like different terminologies which are being used by different sectors, disciplines and actors. Every time a group comes together from different sectors it is vital to get the terminology clear as a first step. One cannot just assume that the other persons know what is meant, as terms can mean different things in different disciplines and sectors.
Challenges also remain on how to balance all the sectors, but I think the key here is to be very transparent and frank about it. I don’t think that you need equally balanced sectors in every Nexus project, it depends on the topic or challenge at hand and if the Nexus assessment is e.g. only done by a hydrologist or by a food security expert, it doesn’t mean that it is a failure. Just be frank of what you do and why.
Finally, there is always a challenge about coordination. Government agencies, researchers and basically all stakeholder have very strong feelings about their mandates, and these mandates are generally limited to one sector. There is always a fear that coordination might reduce mandates or take something away from someone. So, the key then is to show early on the benefits from coordination. For example, we can show to the ministry of agriculture that without interaction with the ministry of water resources, their food security strategy might fail because water shortages were not reflected. To do this, requires them to interact with the water ministry, at a certain cost but likely larger benefits or avoided costs. And to make it clear why coordination is important from the beginning should help to support increased coordination but it will remain a challenge. You often hear form policy makers and even donors that they understand the interlinkages, but they do not have time, and the people they hired are experts in their sectors and not experts on engaging across sectors. I think it is one of the key reasons why we don´t see that many Nexus analysis. We have to show the economic benefit from doing things cross-sectoral.
Where do you see the state of the Nexus approach within the next years?
Currently the attention is very much on the health crisis, but at the end of the day it is a national income crisis and food security crisis. There will be continued underinvestment, even more so in energy security, because finances are simply not available anymore. There might be some backtracking on renewable energies, as other factors, such as job creation may weigh more heavily on government’s minds. Already we have seen challenges in food systems as a result of Covid-19, for example in developed countries, the concentration of meat processing in few companies has now led to bottlenecks with very undesirable outcomes. This is all linked to economies of scale, as well as food security and more indirectly also water- and energy security. Covid-19 is going to lay open new paths where the Nexus approach can make a difference, such as through decentralized energy and associated food processing systems. Thus, the Nexus approach will most certainly not go away, but only get stronger in the light of climate change and now Covid-19. It will continue to be an important component in our business strategies, especially in developing countries where energy, water and food systems are under-developed. But there will also be some shifts in developed countries, e.g. in the ways we are producing food and how we can provide energy, hopefully with a focus on renewable energies.
On behalf of the Nexus Regional Dialogues Team, we would like to thank you for taking the time to conduct this interview.
Claudia Ringler´s profile website at the International Food Policy Research Institute
Stephanie Bilgram, firstname.lastname@example.org