The nexus approach to food, water and energy sectors is holistic, with view to optimize trade-offs and synergies. Can the “nexus” place SDGs within reach?
By Ashvin Ramasamy

What Is The Nexus Approach?

The nexus method takes into account a holistic view of the food, water and energy sectors of the economy that have intrinsic interconnections for resource use, with the goal to optimize trade-offs and synergies. The resulting system of trade-offs and interconnectedness in the economy can help policy-makers design strategies respectful of the Earth’s resource limits. This is critical as we move towards a period of insatiable demand for food and energy.  By 2035, global output of primary energy has to increase by 50%, and 70% of agricultural growth is needed by 2050 to feed a hungrier world. The nexus approach emphasizes the inextricable links among the 17 SDG goals, aligning with a multipronged approach to achieve targets holistically.

The Pillars of the Nexus Approach

Ecosystem services, or the benefits to humans that ecosystems provide, represent delicate functioning of many interlinked components of nature. Around the world, low-income groups depend heavily on the benefits obtained from healthy ecosystems. Such end-products include feedstock, food and bioenergetic fuel. Other large-scale benefits include climate regulation, carbon capture and proper functioning of the hydrological cycle. Ecosystems and water share interdependent relationships, thus emphasizing the need for multidimensional policy-making for resource protection. The nexus approach calls for the guiding principles of a resource efficient economy can help solve a significant portion of Africa’s water scarcity problem. Research finds that existing practices such as water harvesting and more irrigation are made with greater investment and protection for land and water productivity, regions like Sub-Saharan African stand a better chance of fighting degradation and water problems so long as the nexus approach is followed. If the world continues exploiting ecosystems for singular use, the growing appetite of wealthier population will deprive future generations of their services — many of which are not renewable. Doubling or tripling economic activity of one resource development can ensure greater output and efficiency without necessarily impacting the primary activity.

The nexus approach also highlights the glaring disparity between the rich and the poor. By giving access to resources, the poor can actually improve their conditions by engaging in the nexus feedback system. Currently, over one billion of people lack access to clean, potable water. 1.5 billion people do not have electricity. If actors in the nexus approach can enable positive change in the water, energy and food sectors, development needs to catalyse that change first. If government or private investment is enabled for poverty reduction measures, growers can gain from better irrigation technology from the added support. The same growers will gradually lift themselves out of poverty, in turn applying new, efficient ways to use agriculture water. Development in human health leads to more productive members of society, with greater potential for economic development for all. Clean energy access has tremendous potential to alleviate poverty, but a rights-based system places greater protection on natural resources within sustainable development practices. The opportunities to improve the livelihoods of the poor are clear, starting with decision-making and resource allocation for appropriate development to trigger a sort of snowball effect in the nexus sectors.

The Emphasis on Resource Efficiency

The nexus method prioritizes efficient utilization of resources in areas traditionally resource-intensive (intensive agriculture, for example). Where economic interconnectedness is becoming prominent in many regions of the world, the externalities of resource use and consumption has not had the treatment they require. The water, energy and food security nexus has the potential to capture externalities across economic sectors. However, if stakeholders need to pay the full transaction costs to internalize social and environmental impacts, why would they adhere to the nexus approach? Understood from the lens of sustainability, governments and the private sector can benefit from trade-offs and benefits that outweigh the costs in increasingly integrated sectors of the economy.

To achieve greater productivity of resources necessitates foundational changes in development. Intensifying resource production has to occur with sustainable development in mind such that the benefits are accessible to all members of society. Moreover, progress in economic development needs not to come from resource use but can be shaped by technological advancement, clean energy implementation and reuse and recycling of resources as well as reducing waste. That waste is generated at many levels of production will continue is an asset to integrated production systems: this presents opportunities for resource regeneration. Waste and by-products can be repurposed as energy sources for other production components of the system or transported to other sectors of the economy. Take for example of the use of solid waste as a source of bioenergy to be converted for electricity production and steam for heating. Such renewable energy type has had significant application potential in Libya, a country heavily dependent on polluting fossil fuels.

Coherent Policy-Making for Resource Efficiency

Government participation through financial incentives and coherent policy-making has the power to reach important milestones in resource efficiency. First, technological innovation requires sound investment strategies to achieve higher degree of efficiency. In addition, government intervention to correct price distortions caused by abuse of natural resources and ecosystem services is needed. As the nexus way promotes effective trade-offs and synergies in resource use, opting to fund projects underpinned by sustainability objectives will downplay those that follow business ideas with social and environmental costs that are irreversible (i.e., unsustainable pathways) — so-called sunken costs. Decision-makers hold the power to make enabling environments attractive to promote socially and environmentally responsible projects to investors. Establishing a policy landscape of effective implementation at all political levels and within a specific sector is done through vertical integration. However, governance structures have started to favour the horizontal approach, where multiple government departments and organizations integrate shared mechanisms and procedures (e.g., reflecting sustainability goals) across sectors. Where horizontal integration fails to implement the goals, agencies mandated to monitor sectoral environmental objectives ensure implementation at different levels of government on a sector by sector basis. All in all, institutional building and policy coherence help to reduce negative externalities and create a system for sharing benefits equitably among members of society.

A Smart, Integrated Choice for Climate Change

A changing climate on a global scale imposes constraints on water, energy and agriculture systems. The facts speak for themselves: agriculture, land use change and forestry combine to produce 29% of the global greenhouse emissions. However, in the perspective of climate change impacts water supply and agriculture production have much to lose. In many parts of Africa, water-scarce regions and extreme weather events have worsened dry conditions. In turn, crop productivity has suffered important setbacks. As hydroelectricity gains prevalence in Eastern and Central Africa, hydro systems face greater risk of shutdowns due to droughtEcosystem services have declined and indicate a continued downward, in part due to the changing rainfall patterns, protracted dry periods and drops in annual rainfall. Moreover, rainforests play a large role in regulating global climate: their ability to store important amounts of carbon is critical to curbing the effects of climate change. How can we protect rainforest, and thereby extend protective care on the subsistence of many who rely on their ecosystem services? Integrated climate policies on water, energy and food security can put into motion the positive feedback systems on the three sectors. This is where decision-makers need to tread lightly. As mitigation and adaptation measures on a rapidly changing climate will inevitably create undesirable effects. To sequester carbon, develop biofuel systems and operate hydropower plants necessitate consistent, large supplies of water. In order to suck the most carbon, specific tree species need to be planted across large swaths of land. However, those trees are very water-hungry and require additional water supply. Adaptation schemes necessitate even more energy. Although sound techniques exist to adapt to growing water needs,  “green water” productivity and soil management techniques have not been fully exploited in rainfed agriculture and water use and water storage. Developing countries are facing critical levels of agriculture productivity loss and excessive water depletion — namely due to groundwater pumping. This is perhaps the impetus to overcome the carbon-linked inertia African authorities have adhered. Policy-making must turn to the undeniable linkages the UN Sustainable Development Goals share in climate change, energy development and food security in implementing integrated climate protection measures — aligned with nexus methodological objectives.

Opportunities in The Nexus Sectors for Interlinked SDG Targets

While the ambitions of the SDGs are vast, the nexus perspective enshrines the planetary thresholds of food production systems, energy resources and water supplies that have been the target of increasing demand. Nexus thinking — with the resulting tradeoffs and synergies — can spur adaptive responses that are more sustainable in those sectors. If the SDGs can be summarized in one sentence, the aim would be to keep people out of by socially and environmentally sustainable development. How can this be achieved if the goals are pursued disproportionately? The end result would be deplorable, with many of the poor countries presenting poor scorecards. Why? SDG goals are sectoral goals taking a rigid top down approach without open consultation to stakeholders of other sectors as well as evaluating the level of resource use by other sectors. Thus, assessing the SDG Targets — due to their specific nature but far-reaching in sectoral reach — presents an alternative method to tackle holistic developmental needs. Hypothetically, putting a target number of ecosystem to protect in a given region would enable not only environmental protection goals but ensure livelihoods, economic prosperity and well-being of dependent communities as well. Indeed, creating categories not by goals but by common thematic targets would allow a natural process to follow from the interdependencies, tradeoffs and interactions from which goals can be set. Holistically, the SDG framework would then reduce contradictions and become an enabler of target synergies. Decision-makers may not have to grapple with cost-inefficient measures and immense investment projections that sector-based goals require.

Can the least developed countries (LDCs) of Africa achieve the SDGs in the same way a developed Asian country? The answer is simply no. Sub-Saharan nations in particular will undertake actions that meet their capabilities and resources. With the many trade offs and synergistic relationships possible, the targets can be used as as not only benchmarks for success but key elemental pieces towards countries’ own tailored implementation plan.

The interactions among targets are clear, but are they negative, positive and/or synergistic? All three offer their own set of benefits. In the water, energy and food contexts, a target can have an interdependent effect, that is the realization of one target will make another viable. If the eradication of stunting and wasting of children under five years can be achieved, effort in guaranteeing access to nutritious and sufficient food for all is first required. A target can also create a constraint on another one. This tradeoff is not be mistaken as an exclusionary byproduct of the nexus approach but rather a long term solution for sustainable development of critical resources. Take for example implementation of integrated water resources management that covers transboundary cooperation, where water is shared between two nations. This sets the conditions by which both parties can access the water resources and withdrawals methods to be applied. In doing so, protecting this resource can ensure the achievement of other targets that may require it over time. Another type of target is one that reinforces another one. The target to ensure affordable, reliable, and modern energy services on a universal basis can actually promote the use of increasingly cost-effective clean and modern renewable energy sources. The transformative benefit would spill onto the target for substantially increasing the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix. What happens when food and energy sectors have to compete for the same water stock? By expanding reinforcing targets — such as efficient use of water in agriculture systems and efficient water use in hydropower systems — decision-makers can navigate situations of conflict and resource competition with more intelligent options.

Research in the interactions of the water, food and energy SDG goals undertaken to assess the interrelatedness of the respective targets proved sound for matching intersectoral targets together.  Most targets, when studied for their relevance to the three sectors, share cross-sectoral complementarity. Also, targets were distinguished by either the aim to create  access, achieve efficiency or ensure sustainability. These characteristics have implications in the mode of operation for implementing the SDG goals. For instance, South Sudan would more than likely invest time and effort for targets to eradicate malnutrition and work towards affordable streams of food supply rather than pursuing integrated agriculture systems for sustainable outcome of food production, at least in the short run given the famine condition.


The evidence is unambiguous. Developing on a block by block basis at the pace commensurable by a given country is highly recommended. Efforts to reinforce institutional capacity and policy coherence across interdependent sectors will help reduce negative externalities but also to design development schemes according to the nexus standard. As opposed to pursuing high-profile, overarching goals in water, food and energy sectors, countries should take capitalize on useful synergies and making sound decisions on trade-offs. In the end, a resource-efficient, sustainable and equitable roadmap aligned with the planetary boundaries that we all currently face will make SDG-goal setting more realistic.