Sustainable integration? Nexus thinking and the foreclosure of progressive eco-politics

by Joe Williams

The water-energy-food nexus has become a powerful framework for sustainable development that seeks to integrate the management of resource sectors for increased efficiency. However, its current mobilisation is fundamentally de-politicising, overlooking the contradictions and injustices of resource governance

Image 1
Irrigated fields in Jordan (Source: Manufactured Landscapes)

The water, energy and food sectors are, of course, deeply connected. Agriculture accounts for around 70% of total freshwater use globally. Huge amounts of energy is consumed in withdrawing, treating, transporting, using and disposing of water. The food production and supply chain uses about 30% of total global energy production. And the extraction of fossil fuels and production of electricity is highly water intensive.

The linkages between energy, water and food traverse every scale, from household practices to geopolitics. Yet, these complex interconnections have never been systematically quantified or managed. The notion of a WEF nexus, therefore, emerged from a techno-managerial desire to address concerns over growing tensions between sectors.

Proponents argue that greater integration between the management of water, energy and food will necessarily lead to more sustainable practices. Integration should be achieved, we are told, through institutional restructuring and technological innovation. A highly technical discourse and set of methodologies, which together we call nexus thinking, have developed. The main objective is to reduce tensions, trade-offs and maladaptations between sectors, and to capitalise on synergies and shared goals between them.

So far so good. Or at least, so far so boring. Indeed, some have questioned the true novelty of nexus thinking. I mean, surely we already knew that everything was connected. Why do we need a new framework to tell us that the social and ecological systems through which we are sustained, produced and reproduced are deeply complex and relational? The answer to this, I argue, lies in the particular ways in which the concept of the nexus is being mobilised (post)politically.

The WEF nexus has now become the new shibboleth of sustainability, uncritically propagated, yet inconsistently defined. The concept and language of the nexus is now commonly used across academia, policy and civil society. It is also becoming an important agenda for international environmental governance – particularly at the United Nations – and is seen as an important framework for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Its appeal, Rose Cairns and Anna Krywoszynska have argued, comes from a combination of its “ambiguous meaning and strong normative resonance”.

Perhaps this point lies at the heart of the recent success of the nexus framework. The argument is, after all, compelling: water, energy and food are essential ingredients to the functioning of economies and societies; there are indeed multiple linkages between them, despite being managed separately; and these linkages do embody many tensions and trade-offs. The solution, ‘integration, integration, integration’ is, at first glance, an obvious one, and indeed difficult to disagree with. We are, then, presented with a set of severe challenges that seem to jeopardise our very security and quality of life, and at the same time a ready-made solution, which tells us that real political change is not in fact needed.

Image 2
Water cooling canals at the Turkey Point nuclear power plant (Source: Manufactured Landscapes)

The dominant way in which nexus thinking is being mobilised, then, is fundamentally de-politicising. By framing the ‘problem’ of sustainability in technical terms as arising from tensions and trade-offs between sectors, the ‘solution’ also becomes technical, rather than political. In other words, the imperative of the WEF nexus is towards seeking out efficiencies at the margins of resource sectors, not towards changing underlying logics of resource use.

By this I mean that if an agenda is allowed to form around, say, finding efficiency measures to reduce the embedded energy in a water supply system, then the contradictions and injustices of water and energy governance are easily overlooked. Integrated governance is presented, in a word, as a panacea for unsustainable resource practices. Moreover, in current form, nexus thinking forestalls more progressive and politicised discussions.

Nexus thinking, then, has become about managing connections in order to achieve resource supply security and guarantee the material conditions for continued economic growth. It provides, in other words, a techno-managerial fix to the problems posed by resource supply constraints. David Harvey has argued in his recent book, Seventeen Contradictions, that capitalism never resolves its social and ecological contradictions. Instead, it shifts the focus and mode of accumulation in order to avoid them. In this respect, I argue, nexus thinking offers a way in which environmental externalities can be internalised by capital, without undermining the logics of growth-oriented development. The connections between resources, in effect, are becoming the new frontier of accumulation.

This is not to suggest, however, that we should not be paying attention to the WEF nexus. Rather, that we should be pushing for a more progressive and overtly politicised understanding of resource interconnections. 800 million people still suffer from malnutrition worldwide. Around the same number do not have access to adequate clean water and 2.5 billion lack adequate sanitation. And 1.3 billion people live in homes without electricity. The intersecting challenges of energy, water and food in the twenty-first century, therefore, could hardly be more critical (and political).


Joe Williams is Assistant Professor of Human Geography at Durham University with interests broadly encompassing urban studies, political ecology, development, science and technology, and political economy. Joe’s work engages contemporary debates in political ecology through two related research projects on: 1) the political ecology of water; and 2) the politics of integrated environmental governance. Links to Joe’s publications may be found here.

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