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Water-food-energy-ecosystem nexus

What is the nexus?

The nexus term in the context of water, food (agriculture) and energy refers to these sectors being inextricably linked so that actions in one area commonly have impacts on the others, as well as on ecosystems.

Reconciling different uses of water - work on the nexus in transboundary basins

Population growth, economic development, increased energy and food needs all exert increasing pressures on natural resources. Common development needs have to be met in a sustainable manner, without compromising the functioning of ecosystems. Energy, land management and water resources planning commonly take place in isolation, without adequate consideration of what the planned developments require or assume about other sectors, and of what implications – positive or negative – they have. Shortcomings in inter-sectoral coordination are a major challenge both on the national and transboundary levels, in developing as well as in developed countries. In a transboundary setting, the trade-offs and externalities may cause friction between the riparian countries and different interests. A nexus (or inter-sectoral) approach to managing the interlinked resources can enhance water, energy and food security by increasing efficiency, reducing trade-offs, building synergies and improving governance across sectors. What policies, technologies, actions can help to move in that direction?

Recognizing the related challenges, the Parties to the UNECE Water Convention decided on assessments of water-food-energy-ecosystems nexus to be carried out. A representative set of transboundary basins in the pan-European region and beyond was to be assessed based on proposals from the countries.

The assessment aims at identifying, together with the concerned sectors and relevant stakeholders, 1) hindrances to and opportunities for additional and equitable sharing of benefits from stronger integration across sectors, and 2) practical solutions for improving security and for reconciling the different sectors’ needs. The process has been designed to support ownership by the authorities, meaningful participation of various stakeholders, learning together and exchanging experience between basins. This assessment under the UNECE Water Convention has parallels with the National Policy Dialogues' process through which a cross-sectoral and stakeholder approach is also being implemented.

The work is overseen by the Task Force on the Water-Food-Energy-Ecosystem Nexus, including at the following meetings:

During the period of work 2013 – 2015, a pilot assessment was undertaken in the Alazani/Ganykh River Basin shared by Azerbaijan and Georgia,  and three river basins were subsequently  assessed using the nexus methodology: These are the Sava Basin shared by Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia; the Syr Darya Basin shared by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan; and the Isonzo/Soča shared by Italy and Slovenia.

Under the programme of work 2016 – 2018 further nexus assessments will be carried out. An assessment on nexus issues is carried out in the Drina River Basin as follow up to the assessment of the Sava Basin since April 2016. Assessment of the North-Western Sahara Aquifer is expected to start in late 2016.

The nexus assessment methodology developed and the findings from the first three basin assessments are summarised in the publication Reconciling resource uses in transboundary basins: assessment of the water-food-energy-ecosystems nexus (2015). A concise overview of the process and some basin level findings, including possible response actions, can be found in this brochure.

Pilot project in Alazani/Ganykh basin

To test the methodology that has been developed, an assessment of the Alazani/Ganikh Basin, shared by Azerbaijan and Georgia, was initiated to form a holistic picture of the situation and to identify integrated cross sector solutions where through joint action additional benefits can be achieved by both riparian countries. As a key step in the process, an inter-sectoral basin level workshop was organized involving the economic sectors, notably agriculture and energy, as well as water and environment administrations, companies and civil society representatives. The workshop was organised from 25 to 27 November 2013 in Kachreti, Georgia in cooperation with UNDP/GEF project “Reducing Transboundary Degradation in the Kura Ara(k)s River Basin” and co-hosted by the Ministry of Environment Protection and Natural Resources of Georgia.

At the workshop the participants engaged enthusiastically in group discussions, resulting in broadened understanding of the linkages between different sectors. Overall, it was noted that climate change was likely to increase flooding events as well as scarcity of water in the basin. Therefore it becomes crucial to assess how best to cooperate between countries and sectors in managing water resources. In doing so, participants recognized the decisive importance of energy policies for protecting ecosystems and water resources from the negative effects of deforestation. They also concluded that improving water infrastructure, including for irrigation and treatment, would be a helpful step in reducing pressure on natural resources and improving local economy. 

The assessment demonstrates that, for instance, improving access to modern energy sources would limit the use of fuel wood in rural households, which would complement reforestation efforts aimed at reducing erosion, exposure to flood damage and biodiversity loss. More generally, taking into account the potential for multiple uses of infrastructure and the environmental factors, more sustainable development solutions can be found and financial resources allocated more efficiently.

Assessment of the Sava River basin

The second nexus assessment is of the Sava River basin, which began with the kick-off workshop on 4-6 March 2014 in Zagreb. The findings of the workshop highlighted that the need for irrigation will grow, as will investments in the energy sector. At the same time, extreme weather events pose risks and might damage infrastructure. Furthermore, investments should be made in new land reclamation strategies.
Links between these developments were identified and the related trade-offs discussed in the workshop. 

In the Sava Basin, the assessment exercise is contributing to further integration of water policy with other policies and further dialogue with the key sectoral stakeholders, as specific objectives in river basin management defined in the Strategy on Implementation of the Framework Agreement on the Sava River Basin. The process helps to broaden the stakeholder involvement in the framework of the International Sava River Basin Commission (ISRBC).

The assessment illustrates the value of transboundary cooperation for balancing between increasing energy generation, the ambitious regional climate and energy policy targets and maintaining a good status of shared waters. A more systematic use of policy instruments, reliable data and information gathering as well as coordination of investments into infrastructure and promoting multiple and flexible use of infrastructure were among the key recommendations. Furthermore, using ISRBC as a platform to discuss all the relevant basin resources and for a consultation process to review the impact of national and sectoral development strategies was also recommended.

Assessment of the Syr Darya River basin

A participatory basin workshop held in Almaty, Kazakhstan from 2 to 4 December 2014 gathered a broad spectrum of stakeholders from the basin countries, including representatives of the agriculture and energy sectors, water and environment administrations, State companies and civil society. Currently, the efficiency in the use of natural resources in the region is limited, in many cases due to a lack of cooperation and interaction between sectors and countries. Energy and water deficits are common features in the basin, while at the same time basin ecosystems are under severe pressure. Several concrete areas were identified where joint action could reduce pressure on water and other resources. This included the improvement of water and energy efficiency and productivity, development of markets for resource trading as well as strengthening the legal basis for transboundary cooperation.

Adoption of the nexus approach has a potential to improve resource use efficiency and security in the riparian countries of the Syr Darya Basin. In contrast to national approaches presently employed, cooperation involving all the countries and sectors has a great potential to optimize the use of resources in the basin. Nevertheless, applying solutions such as improvement of efficiency in water and energy use, as well as well-targeted economic and policy instruments at the country level can gradually build more favourable conditions for transboundary cooperation. A functioning transboundary and inter-sectoral cooperation is a prerequisite for the efficient management of existing infrastructure and optimization of new investments and trade.

Focusing on issues and synergic opportunities identified in these thee basins, the report “Reconciling resource uses in transboundary basins: assessment if the water-food-energy-ecosystems nexus” was published in November 2015.

Assessment of the Isonzo/Soča River basin

A participatory workshop was held in Gorizia, Italy on 26-27 May 2015, involving Italian representatives of the Ministries, regional and local authorities, civil society, and academia. In the first stage of the assessment, intersectoral issues were discussed with a particular focus on the Italian side of the basin. Two main themes where identified that that should be tackled. The first is ‘river continuity’, meaning the capacity of the river to support a number of services all along its course. From a nexus perspective, the aspect of ecosystems connectivity is as important as hydrological continuity and water quality. The second one is ‘eco-tourism’, highlighted to have a high potential in terms of green jobs.

From the findings of this scoping level exercise it is clear that the nexus assessment of the Isonzo/Soča has potential to promote the transboundary region around the basin. Information and conclusions on the transboundary intersectoral issues and interlinkages could be further developed and detailed, should also Slovenian authorities participate in a continuation of the activities Specifically, the nexus assessment could help exploring a number of opportunities to enhance green growth – a priority for both countries – taking into account the various negative and positive impacts of each intervention across sectors.

The draft assessment can be found here.

Assessment of the Drina River basin

As follow up on the Sava River Basin assessment a nexus assessment in the Drina basin, shared by Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia was launched. The kick of workshop was held on 21-22 April 2016 in Montenegro.

The conclusions from the workshop suggest that broadening and intensifying transboundary cooperation between the three countries would have diverse potential benefits. For example, if the use of flow-regulation infrastructure and related communications were optimized, the damage from high or low water flows could be minimized, while serving also hydropower generation. Introduction of mechanisms for transboundary inter-agency coordination would be helpful to that end. This is just one of the opportunities for a beneficial cooperation, both on policy and technical matters, participants came up with. Also, tourism, energy generation and agriculture would all benefit from addressing the shortcomings of solid waste management in the Drina Basin. In particular, it was felt that rural development that exploited the synergies of improved agricultural productivity, nature-related tourism and renewable energy was a promising opportunity to explore.

The conclusions and recommendations of the workshop will provide the direction for an analysis of priority measures and related opportunities in the next steps.