Where next for the WEL nexus? Some clues from efforts to integrate in water
By Nathaniel Mason
Water, energy and land are headline issues in the run-up to Rio+20. The 2012 European Report on Development (ERD), which has its UK launch at DFID on 11 June, and a launch in Berlin on 14 June, puts the knotty problem of increasing scarcity and interconnections between these resources centre-stage: the Water, Energy and Land (WEL) nexus . There are still hopes that outcomes from Rio will bridge between environmental and developmental agendas, for example by agreeing a mandate to set Sustainable Development Goals. Such big ideas will need to be backed up by other radical rethinks in the way we approach our environment, societies and economies.
The ERD proposes the WEL nexus as one such rethink: as the report’s team leader Dirk Willem te Velde argues, “countries need to avoid policy making in silos and stimulate integrated thinking that promotes the management of water, energy and land (WEL) as part of a WEL-nexus.”
It’s good to see the UK government articulating similar ideas in its pre-Rio warm-ups, while Germany has been consistently pushing the "nexus" agenda. Broad themes, rather than specific SDGs, are now the pragmatic ambition for Rio+20 – in which case some reflection of the criticality of water, energy and land, and their interrelations, would be a positive outcome. Managing the WEL-nexus in integrated manner is not just an environmental necessity, but a developmental one too:
- The poorest are proportionally more dependent on resource-intensive but essential goods and services, notably food and energy, and therefore most sensitive to scarcity-driven price changes
- Entire economies increasingly rely on each of the three resources as inputs to the others’ production processes– for example energy for water withdrawals, or water for energy production
- Ecosystem services, for example the flow-regulation provided by wetlands, underpin economies and livelihoods and are in turn dependent on the water-land nexus, in particular
In the water sector, calls for integrated thinking are nothing new. The concept of Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) has been around for decades, “a process which promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources in order to maximise the resultant economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystem services”. Put energy (or means of energy production) first among those “related resources” and you have something pretty similar to the WEL-nexus.
So while the ERD has many ideas for how to turn the WEL-nexus from an interesting boundary object into meaningful policy and action, it’s worth reflecting on what the experience with IWRM tells us about integration.
First, how have we done at IWRM? A forthcoming global status report from UN Water suggests reasons for optimism, with a consistent increase in the number of countries reporting “significant progress” in the development and implementation of IWRM plans. But while plans and related institutions, such as River Basin Organisations are important components in the process, they may not tell us much about progress on the ground (or, for that matter, in the water). Often the pragmatic business of real integration depends on political economy of inter-sectoral relations, and non-sectoral agendas such as broad economic development. One of the examples considered in the ERD is South Africa, which has admirably integrative water policies, but has struggled to rebalance its water budget due to powerful interests in commercial agriculture.
So here are three clues from the IWRM experience which might be relevant for promoting a WEL-nexus approach:
- First, we need to invest in understanding the political economy of different sectors. IWRM is always going to be seen by those working on energy or land as a ‘watery’ agenda, whereas the WEL-nexus is not owned by any one of the three. To capitalise on this, we need to better understand what motivates management decisions across water, energy and land sectors. For example, Researchers at the Australian National University point out that the water sector needs to get up to speed with how energy security and climate change considerations are radically shifting where and how energy is produced, with significant implications for water use. ODI’s work on the political economy analysis of service delivery, for example water supply and sanitation, could be profitably adapted to the contested space of resource management.
- Next many countries, especially those with weak and underdeveloped governance arrangements, will need a lot of support to integrate across the WEL nexus – as the African Ministers Council on Water has recently called for. As a start, the EU and its Member States could take stock of the WEL-nexus implications for the EU’s international development policy, the Agenda for Change. While the Agenda for Change emphasises sustainable agriculture and energy, it could also link up the third resource in the WEL nexus, water, with a dedicated WEL-nexus initiative. This would complement existing sector-specific initiatives on water and energy, which help countries to raise political awareness, facilitate collaboration and stimulate investment.
- Finally, top-down approaches for resource management (which IWRM and the WEL-nexus can easily become) will not succeed without bottom-up efforts to help people improve their livelihoods and their capacity to adapt to increasing resource scarcity, as well as to reduce unsustainable modes of production. ODI’s Water Policy Programme will be exploring this space in over the coming years in an EC-funded collaboration with African and European partners, to research sustainable land and water management innovations for small-holder irrigated agriculture.
And a final thought on wording. While sector-specialists and policy wonks are comfortable with a nexus, the term may not register so strongly with more general audiences – over to the communications experts for suggestions of how to pitch the idea more widely.