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The Water-Energy-Food Nexus: A guiding light or a continuation of power relations?

Written by Micaela Edelson

August 31, 2018

Water is complex. It’s defined as either an economic or social good, varies across time and space, and is increasingly scarce. As of 2015, 663 million people globally lacked access to clean drinking water. This complexity causes an international dispute about managing water as a resource. There is also a range of views on how to address water insecurity—a priority outlined in the sixth Sustainable Development Goal. Increasingly, policy-makers are using the emerging concept, water-energy-food nexus to address issues of resource insecurity as interlinked systems by mainly focusing on the role of water. Unfortunately, power relations have framed this nexus idea. As such, it has severe implications for marginalised populations.

The water-energy-nexus and its consequences

The World Economic Forum (WEF) first introduced the water-energy-food nexus concept in 2011, with the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), governments, philanthropic donors, and private corporations involved in the initial framing. These private corporations, such as the Coca-Cola Company, and Nestlé rely heavily on water access for production. However if profit-oriented organisations are almost exclusively controlling water management debates, other actors are excluded from discussions. Even if other actors are present, the World Bank and IMF can exploit their power and use coercion-based policies, like grants and loans, as tools to control the nexus debate.

These organisations have conceptualised water security as a biophysically scarce economic good, which sees water in terms of volumetric quantities. This aligns with neoclassical economic thought that market transactions occur when resources are scarce. However, seeing water as biophysically scarce does not acknowledge issues of distribution and equity in access to water. We have enough water, but not everyone has access to it.

Market-based solutions?

Framing water as an economic good also results in the adoption of market-based management approaches, like privatising water. For example, water grabbing has become a common occurrence. Private companies purchase access rights to rivers and streams, to which poor and marginalised communities previously had access. This happened in Turkey where private companies owned rights to hundreds of water bodies over 49 years for hydropower development. It took place again in Peru, where private mining companies changed the allocation of water rights. This significantly impacted both the quantity and quality of water for local downstream users. Privatising land for agricultural development and intensification, specifically in Africa, has also increasingly stressed water resources. Often, the privatisation comes from foreign corporations that collect most of the profit. As a result, locals have little benefit.

What’s more, commentators have advocated technology and infrastructure as solutions to scarcity issues within the nexus. However, infrastructure also represents symbols of uneven power structures from the nexus. Biswas (2012) discusses the implications of hydropower dam construction as he refers to the World Bank and the World Commission on Dams in his statement:

“With a combined voice, they could tell developed countries who had already constructed most of their large dams, that infrastructure construction is important for their socio-economic development and that they need such structures” (pp. vii).

What’s more, private interests dominate continued dam construction. While hydropower dams appear to promote sustainable development, often large energy corporations and political leaders are just pursuing their financial interests while excluding marginalised communities. These communities become more vulnerable to ecological risks, such as flooding, and altered vegetation and land.

Still worse yet

Unfortunately, issues surrounding the water-energy-food nexus are expected to worsen as climate change is increasingly impacting the biophysical availability of water, specifically in developing countries who already suffer disproportionately from water insecurity. We need to be critical of where and how resource debates are framed and their ultimate implications in order to alleviate the effects of big corporate power on vulnerable people.

From Salem, Oregon, Micaela Edelson is a U.S.-U.K. Fulbright Scholar earning her Masters of Science degree in Environment and Development at the University of Leeds.

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