2016 Water-Energy-Food (W-E-F) Nexus
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The Future Earth Water-Energy-Food Cluster Project

Future Earth is a major international research platform providing the knowledge and support to accelerate transformations to a sustainable world. Launched in 2015, Future Earth is a 10-year initiative to advance Global Sustainability Science, build capacity in this rapidly expanding area of research and provide an international research agenda to guide natural and social scientists working around the world. But it is also a platform for international engagement to ensure that knowledge is generated in partnership with society and users of science.

The Future Earth Water-Energy-Food (W-E-F) Nexus Cluster project began in 2015, when the Belmont Forum funded a proposal to explore the role of integrated information and improved governance in facilitating the sustainability of the Water-Energy-Food Nexus. The project’s information-gathering phase includes four regional workshops that will contribute to its final project report and to a longer-term research strategy. The research strategy will be submitted to Future Earth and will serve as a basis for seeking additional funding for a more comprehensive programme. The project has clear ties to Future Earth’s Sustainable Water Future Programme (SWFP) and other Future Earth activities such as Knowledge Action Networks, which deal with Food, Energy, and Water and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Three of the four workshops have been completed and two workshop reports have been issued. The first W-E-F Nexus workshop, held in Washington, DC in June 2015, focused on water and agriculture. The second workshop, held in Karlsruhe, Germany in November 2015, emphasized the role of renewable energy in the Nexus. The third workshop, held in Kyoto, Japan in April 2016, included discussions of aquaculture and programme links between the W-E-F Nexus and Future Earth. These workshops have produced a wealth of insights on general issues pertaining to the W-E-F Nexus and on region-specific challenges (as outlined in the workshop reports). Steps are being taken to establish a global interest group or community of practice on the W-E-F Nexus.

Integrated Information Systems

Earth observation programmes and big data have significant roles to play since they can be used to monitor and understand environmental conditions, needs, and trends. For example, satellite observations can be used for landscape monitoring and to understand and model land surface processes. While currently available observations meet the requirements for many applications, discussions held during some W-E-F Nexus workshops identified a number of site- and process-specific data gaps that must be addressed in order to fully inform comprehensive planning of W-E-F Nexus actions.

Integrated information systems draw together data from all sources to address W-E-F Nexus problems. Data and information needs and coordination gaps will be identified and the effectiveness of management and governance issues will be assessed. Gaps in the adequacy of information, coordination, and decision support needed to resolve these issues and conflicts will be identified. Governance approaches should take advantage of the power of the information contained in Earth observations.

Both W-E-F Nexus science and the SDGs require improved monitoring and information systems. Reliable observations of the terrestrial environment are needed for sustainable economic development, natural resources management, and biodiversity conservation. Vast quantities of terrestrial observations are collected but global terrestrial processes will not be understood unless these data are standardized to facilitate comparisons at different scales. Furthermore, observations must be analysed to provide a comprehensive picture of the present state of terrestrial ecosystems and to build capacity for their long-term monitoring. Data and information services are expected to be an issue for Africa and it would be very helpful to bring forward recommendations related to this topic.

Role of Governance

Governance is another critical research area for the W-E-F Nexus because the way in which decisions are made and the factors that influence outcomes are both very important. To a major extent, the challenge for improving governance is the need to advance W-E-F Nexus thinking and explaining how it can be effectively implemented at all levels of decision-making. The Nexus perspective should be used in planning to maximize co-benefits to sectors, to ensure transparent discussions on trade-offs, and to minimize inadvertent failures arising from single-focus programmes.

Governance issues reflect current attitudes and, often, political imperatives. Good governance includes transparency, efficiency, and public participation in decision-making. The governance structure also determines the extent to which developers, regulatory authorities, and the public have the opportunity to interact in a balanced and respectful way. Blueprints and panacea for optimal governance of the W-E-F Nexus do not exist. Discussions should focus on solutions and ways in which policy approaches can be used to facilitate this result. W-E-F Nexus problems are multi-level and multi-scale, with many interconnections and no simple solutions, suggesting a need for polycentric governance approaches. Africa, with its own unique governance styles, may provide important insights to multidimensional governance structures.

Discussions of socio-economic issues are often region-specific and based on opinion, subjective experience, and incomplete understanding of incentives and trade-offs. One tool that could facilitate these discussions within the W-E-F sector, at least at the macro-level, is the virtual water concept. Given that global agriculture and trade will strongly influence the local sustainability of water use, virtual water can be used to represent the amount of water required to produce certain crops. Using these results, it may be possible to identify outcomes of both appropriate and inappropriate incentives and regulations that affect the sustainable use of water in agriculture and energy production, or to identify trade patterns (in food and other commodities) that may spatially decouple production and consumption.

In addressing governance issues, we need better capabilities to assess the impacts of policy interventions in the W-E-F Nexus. We also need a diagnostic approach that maps similar classes of problems to similar classes of solutions. Throughout these analyses, more emphasis needs to be given to understanding and monitoring the processes of change.

Links to the SDGs

The W-E-F Nexus brings together three sectors, each of which is highlighted in the SDGs. The scope of the SDGs is broader than the scope of the Future Earth W-E-F Nexus Cluster project because it deals with water for all, energy for all, and food for all—but without defining the interactions between these sectors. In practice, the interactions between the goals must be considered because the world will not be sustainable if we achieve the goal for food by ignoring the goals for water and energy (for example). With its focus on collaborative planning, shared data and information systems, and new approaches to governance that will facilitate cross-sector interaction, the W-E-F Nexus study can make an important contribution to the SDGs and ensure that their implementation does not fall into the trap of “silo” thinking. The Pietermaritzburg workshop will help clarify the contributions that W-E-F Nexus thinking can make to the implementation of these three SDGs. It will also outline approaches based on lessons from W-E-F Nexus studies to a more integrated approach to the implementation of all of the SDGs.

Objectives for the Pietermaritzburg Workshop

The technical workshop in Pietermaritzburg will expand our knowledge base by focusing on the following objectives:
  • Identify the critical issues related to the W-E-F Nexus generally in Africa and particularly in southern Africa.
  • Assess information needs and the potential benefits of Earth observations in the W-E-F Nexus context.
  • Identify governance gaps in addressing W-E-F Nexus issues and requirements for information and strategies to improve the performance of the water, energy, and food sectors.
  • Assess the role of a W-E-F Nexus approach to support the effective implementation of the SDGs and the potential of the UN SDG process to support the W-E-F Nexus.
  • Identify needs and opportunities for capacity building.

Download the Pietermaritzburg Workshop Agenda below

Important dates to note:

  • September 30, 2016: Deadline for abstract submission
  • October 15, 2016: Notification of acceptance of papers,
  • October 31, 2016: Distribution of the final agenda
  • November 21-23, 2016: Workshop dates

Please note that the Workshop and Dialogue are separate events and require separate registrations.

Objectives of the Science-Policy Dialogue

The technical workshop will be followed by a Science-Policy Dialogue focused more on policy. Its objectives include:
  • To review evidence on the W-E-F Nexus at different levels, with a particular focus on how the nexus approach applies to different sectors in the Southern Africa.
  • Identify policy gaps in addressing the W-E-F Nexus issues in Southern Africa.
  • Identify trade - offs on WEF Nexus and what is required to reduce them and even translate them to synergies.
  • Assess the role of W-E-F Nexus approach to support implementation of the South African National Development Plan, Southern African Development Community (SADC) W-E-F Nexus activities, and the SDGs.
  • Identify challenges facing the implementation of the W-E-F Nexus across the SADC region.
  • Extrapolate these discussions to suggest the critical issues related to the W-E-F Nexus in Africa.

Download the Johannesburg Science-Policy Dialogue Agenda below

Important dates to note:

  • October 31, 2016: Distribution of the final agenda
  • November 24-25, 2016: Dialogue dates

Please note that the Dialogue and Workshop are separate events and require separate registrations.

On behalf of the organizing committee for the “Water-Energy-Food Nexus and its Linkages to the Implementation of the SDGs” workshop, we thank you for considering this invitation.
Richard Lawford
Co-Lead for the W-E-F Cluster Study, Future Earth
Sylvester Mpandeli
W-E-F Lighthouse Coordinator, Water Research Commission
Graham Jewitt
Director, Centre for Water Resources Research, University of KwaZulu-Natal
Claudia Pahl-Wostl
Co-Lead for the W-E-F Cluster Study, Future Earth

Archive – workshops held:

Reference Material: