Can the nexus concept help to galvanise new discussions and insights about development and the environment? Or might the terminology of the nexus risk obscuring the inherently political nature of questions about how resources are used, who decides, and who benefits or loses from these allocations?
Around 80 people from research, business and civil society organisations met at the ODI in London, on Thursday 11 Sept 2014, for day on Tackling trade-offs in the food-water-energy nexus: lessons for the Sustainable Development Goals. The debates highlighted the importance of not overlooking the political dimensions of these debates.
Trade-offs between development objectives and wider environmental concerns are a familiar theme in development and environment debates. But Andrew Scott, research fellow at the ODI, pointed out that development indicators (such as levels of electrification) often don’t – in and of themselves – say much about the broader sustainability or environmental implications of such development trends.
One of the aims of the event was to consider whether the concept of a ‘nexus’ of interactions between food, energy, water and the wider environment might be a useful way of making these trade-offs and interactions more explicit. Over the course of the day, participants heard about the complex interactions and trade-offs involved in the provision of food, water and energy in a variety of countries: China, Vietnam, Brazil and Burkina Faso.
One observation that emerged from these discussions was that ordinary people involved with food, energy or water production are often very acutely aware of the interdependencies and linkages between these domains, but would rarely use or think in the terminology of ‘a nexus’. Indeed, the issue of what different people mean by the term ‘nexus’ was a recurrent theme throughout the day.
Peter Newbourne, research associate at the ODI, highlighted the fact that the term nexus has both a descriptive meaning; that is food, energy and water are clearly interlinked and the term ‘nexus’ is just one way of referring to these interactions, as well as a normative meaning; the idea of ‘nexus thinking’ is used to talk about an imagined ideal of how water, energy and food usage might be planned or managed in a more integrated way.
So what are the implications of the fuzziness of the nexus concept for its usefulness? Here, it might be instructive to look at the evolution of another highly ambiguous term like ‘sustainable development’. Arguably, sustainable development proved to be a resilient concept because of its ambiguity rather than in spite of it, and because of its ability to galvanise discussions and debate between diverse stakeholders. The different meanings attributed to the term ‘nexus’, like those attributed to the term ‘sustainability’ might actually be helpful in bringing diverse actors together and to galvanise new discussions and insights about development and the environment. However others pointed to the potential exclusivity of the terminology of a nexus, asking important questions about where this terminology came from, whose interests it might serve, and who might be excluded.
Political questions such as these were a recurrent theme. In the afternoon roundtable discussion Lyla Metha (IDS fellow and Nexus Network Co-Investigator) situated the nexus discourse in historical context, highlighting the linkages between nexus discourses and earlier debates around Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM), and pointed to the need to ensure that political issues around justice and rights, gender and place are not absent from the nexus debates.
In a similar vein, various participants raised concerns that the concept of the nexus has, to date, been used in fairly apolitical ways, often focusing for example, on modelling interactions between different sectors or looking for technical data to point to ‘optimal’ outcomes.
Many participants were critical of the idea that the problems that may emerge at the nexus of food, energy and water provision are the result of a knowledge gap. It was suggested that the answer to the question ‘why are things as they are?’ is not usually a lack of knowledge or data, but a result of political and economic interests.
The discussions at the ODI event highlighted the important role that social scientists and development professionals can play in ensuring that debates around food, energy and water interactions aren’t framed as solely technical matters, and to guard against the terminology of the nexus becoming a way of talking about environment-society interactions without having to touch upon politics.
Thanks to Dr Rose Cairns, Network Coordinator for the Nexus Network, for this article.