The Nexus is already at the forefront of political and scientific debate

This is a blog post originally published at following an invitation to write some comments on a talk held at the German Pavillion at Rio+20.

“An avid follower of the Nexus Platform website, I was thrilled to find out about the side event happening at the German Pavillion at Rio+20. This discussion, held in the late afternoon of what was otherwise a disappointing Thursday at the Earth Summit, gave me encouragement on two accounts before I had even arrived.” – Edward Byers

Firstly, it is great to see such an important issue being showcased by a national government and their commitment to exploring the uncertainties. Secondly, this event was completely open to the public unlike many other side events, which is important because this is an issue that transcends all boundaries.

Although I have been researching in the water-energy domain for quite some time, I had missed the Bonn conference so was particularly keen to discuss outcomes and next steps from this process. We were therefore very fortunate to have Dr Albert Butare, Co-Chair of the Bonn 2011 conference to lead the discussion. Dr Butare was formerly Minister for Energy and Water for the Republic of Rwanda and now heads a consultancy group for energy services in Africa. He was joined by State Secretary Hans-Jürgen Beerfeltz of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development and a very interesting panel of international experience consisting of:

  • Vivien Foster
    Sector Manager for Energy, World Bank
  • Lasse Gustavsson
    Executive Director, WWF International
  • Te Navuth
    Mekong River Commission
  • Eiman Karar
    Director, Water Research Commission
  • Jerson Kelman
    President Light Corp., Brazil

Following introductions, two themes became clear to me that appear to be very much at the top of the agenda and fit well in line with other themes at the conference.

1. All are important, but Water almost always comes out on top.

Starting with the poorest 1 billion without access to safe drinking water, there is absolutely no question about water not being the most important aspect of their lives. Save a woman 5 hours of her day that she would spend collecting water, and that is 5 hours that can be spent in education or caring for children. But compare this to the priorities in the lives of the world’s most affluent 1 billion and it would seem we have lost perspective of what is truly important. Which of water, energy or food, would you least like to lose access to for the period of :

a.       1 hour

b.      1 day

c.       1 week?

If your answers were a) energy b) food or water and c) water, then well done, you appear to retain the basic instincts for survival. But we should look further into why we have in many cases lost perspective of what is most important – particularly in cities.

We must not forget that it is our infrastructure that very much permits that millions upon millions can live in such close confinement. Without functioning infrastructure, cities cease to be civilised.

With more than 50% of the world’s population now living in cities, catastrophic events can have devastating impacts. Given their vulnerability, cities also represent beacons of hope and appear to be very much acting as ‘first responders’ to climate change. I therefore urge that more attention is given to water security, with particular consideration for ‘virtual water’ present in food as well as the use of water in energy production and electricity generation.

2. Governance and institutional policy needs to change in order to effectively manage resources, reduce risks and exploit opportunities

Over time our infrastructure systems have evolved from being autonomous and based in silo, into networks transporting electricity and water, for example. Similarly, networks have become interconnected with, and interdependent on, other networks. This helps them run efficiently, can make them both resilient and vulnerable to failure and allows operation from a distance. However, our institutions, governance frameworks, policy planning and management approaches have not responded sufficiently to these developments.

In some cases, for example those of Albert Butare’s and Jerson Kelman’s, where water and electricity production are highly coupled by hydroelectricity, institutional frameworks may have evolved to accommodate the management of these two resources. Interestingly enough, Jerson Kelman is a civil engineer with specialisation in hydrology, although he is the President of the electricity company for the state of Rio de Janeiro, Light. A true example of nexus expertise and management of critical resources in tandem.

Around the world, however, there are considerable conflicts between water, energy and food. Stakeholders are often competing for resources and outdated abstraction regimes mean that some have no incentive to save water for fear of having their permits reduced.

Governance of these sectors is often split between ministries, which is often reasonable given their size and importance. However we need strong bridges at the highest levels between the three sectors in order to integrate planning policy and for the sharing of knowledge, opportunities and risks.

Eiman Karar called for the need to unlock institutional innovations in order to accommodate changes in technology, practice, globalisation, climate, demography and most pertinently resource availability. As discussed in the talk, this is usually approached most effectively at the River Basin level and catchment scale. An additional layer of complexity is added when the river is transboundary, forcing countries to cooperate as was the case in the Mekong River that traverses 6 countries.

The nexus is already at the forefront of political and scientific debate and will likely escalate in the decades to come, yet actions we take must start in our homes. Wangari Maathai summarises the required approach elegantly:

“Our planet is finite, our fates are intertwined, our choice is clear – stand together or fall divided.”

Edward Byers is a Ph.D student at the School of Civil Engineering & Geosciences at Newcastle University in the UK. His research focuses on infrastructure transitions in the water-energy nexus for the UK. Edward was sponsored by the local water company, Northumbrian Water, to attend the Rio+20 Earth Summit along with other delegates from the University and the Planet Earth Institute

Ed Byers, PhD Civil Engineering and Geosciences

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