The water-energy-food (WEF) nexus has been promoted in recent years as an intersectional concept designed to improve planning and regulatory decision-making across the three sectors. The production and consumption of water, energy and food resources are inextricably linked across multiple spatial scales (from the global to the local), but a common feature is competition for land which through different land management practices mediates provisioning ecosystem services.
The nexus perspective seeks to understand the interlinkages and use systems-based thinking to frame management options for the present and the future. It aims to highlight advantage and minimise damaging and unsustainable outcomes through informed decisions regarding trade-offs inclusive of economic, ecological and equity considerations.
Operationalizing the WEF approach is difficult because of the lack of complete data, knowledge and observability – and the nature of the challenge also depends on the scale of the investigation. Transboundary river basins are particularly challenging because whilst the basin unit defines the hydrological system this is not necessarily coincident with flows of food and energy. There are multiple national jurisdictions and geopolitical relations to consider. Land use changes have a profound influence on hydrological, agricultural, energy provisioning and regulating ecosystem services.
Future policy decisions in the water, energy and food sectors could have profound effects, with different demands for land and water resources, intensifying competition for these resources in the future.
In this study, the authors used Google Earth Engine (GEE) to analyse the land cover changes in the Zambezi river basin (1.4 million km²) from 1992 to 2015 using the European Space Agency annual global land cover dataset. Early results indicate transformative processes are underway with significant shifts from tree cover to cropland, with a 4.6 % loss in tree cover and a 16 % gain in cropland during the study period. The changes were found to be occurring mainly in the eastern (Malawi and Mozambique) and southern (Zimbabwe and southern Zambia) parts of the basin. The area under urban land uses was found to have more than doubled during the study period gearing urban centres increasingly as the foci for resource consumption.
These preliminary findings are the first step in understanding the spatial and temporal interlinkages of water, energy and food by providing reliable and consistent evidence spanning the local, regional, national and whole transboundary basin scale.
Proceedings of the International Association of Hydrological Sciences 2018, 376, 15-23