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News and Media
Presa Borén in Sorpe, Catalonia, Spain. To ensure hydropower is sustainable, it is crucial to consider competing demands for urban water, irrigation and ecosystems protection. FLICKR/Xaf
Integrating water, energy and land-use planning can increase efficiency, reduce trade-offs and build synergies across sectors, explains the author of an influential paper on this topic.
In the lead-up to the High Level Segment of the Rio+20 conference, panelists in the Sustainable Development Dialogues – a major forum for civil-society input to Rio+20 – voted to urge Heads of State to embrace the “nexus” concept. Holger Hoff, author of the paper Understanding the Nexus, which informed the dialogues, explains why this message is so important.
Q: Why do we need a nexus approach?
HH: We are facing, simultaneously, a tightening natural-resource squeeze and growing impacts of climate change. Incremental sectoral improvements are no longer enough to meet these challenges. We need a new approach to reach much higher levels of resource use efficiency and human security; that is the goal of nexus thinking. SEI has long promoted integrated water and land management, and the nexus is a logical extension of that, building linkages to the energy and food sectors. The nexus also addresses what we call multi-functional systems, such as agro-forestry or productive sanitation.
Q: How does the nexus help address trade-offs between sectors?
HH: We can take the example of food security. How will we feed 9 billion people in 2050? Conventional agricultural intensification would involve using more fertilizer, more irrigation and higher mechanization. These actions are all energy- and water- intensive, so while land productivity increases, specific energy /or water demand may also go up.
A more sustainable strategy for agriculture intensification, perhaps using organic agriculture, would start by assessing all relevant resources; land, water, energy, etc., and their respective scarcity, productivity and system resilience on the particular location.
It is all interlinked. Food security needs to be water-, land- and energy-smart. Efforts to achieve energy efficiency and protect the climate need to be water- and land-smart. And efforts to increase water productivity must be energy- and climate- smart.
Q: How does this fit with the concept of a “green economy”?
HH: Given that sustainable intensification and decoupling of resource use from economic development are basic premises of the green economy, the nexus approach holds significant potential to support the required transformation. Moreover, biomass plays a central role in a green economy, and the nexus approach comprehensively addresses the conjunctive management of the underlying resource base.
Q: How could world leaders adopt the nexus concept at Rio+20?
HH: It is likely that Rio+20 will launch a process to identify Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to meet both social and environmental challenges. The nexus concept could inform the SDGs. We believe that integrated SDG’s can align the need for human security with the need to remain within planetary boundaries.
Q: What can the nexus approach teach the private sector – and those who regulate it? One of the key points you’ve made is that we must “internalize” social and environmental externalities.
HH: Take for example the much-debated foreign direct investment in agricultural land, and consequently water. Our dialogue with investors indicates that they are interested in nexus approaches and internalization of social and environmental effects for several reasons, such as reputation, corporate social responsibility, and an interest in maintaining both a positive investment climate and their resource base. Continued nexus research can provide the integrated knowledge they need across resources, disciplines and institutions.
Q: How much more do we still need to learn about the nexus?
HH: We need to know more about the interdependencies of resource use intensities, inputs of water, energy and other factors, in production and consumption chains. Current footprint analyses – for example, water or carbon footprints – don’t provide sufficient guidance for sustainable production and consumption. Close collaboration between scientists, the private sector and other stakeholders can help address this challenge.
Another gap lies in the governance of the nexus: there is no blueprint for how to adapt institutions to take more integrative approaches. We need to collect good practices and innovations from around the world – as the Nexus Resource Platform is doing – and derive new governance principles from them.
Q: How else is capacity being built around the nexus approach?
HH: The Bonn2011 Nexus Conference last November and its follow-up activities have nicely raised awareness, built partnerships and will hopefully trigger new initiatives to put these concepts into practice.
Starting from existing good practices, innovations and solutions, we need to build a knowledge base with rules for transferring and up scaling local experience. There are good proposals for developing and applying tools and user interfaces for integrating distributed knowledge that await funding.