Stepping outside the ‘water box’ to engage on Nexus issues

18 October 2013 | News story

Blog by Rebecca Welling. This week I represented IUCN Water at the IWA Development Congress in Nairobi, Kenya. Despite the recent events there, the Congress was well attended, with over 1000 water professionals, global companies and institutions gathering to share experiences and knowledge on practical solutions, in particular for improved access to water and sanitation services for urban environments.

With four major themes, I followed closely the stream on optimising resources for the water, food and energy nexus, considering that I’m working on our Nexus Dialogue Project which we implement jointly with IWA. Through this stream, we ran a session specifically on the Nexus Dialogue where I spoke about our recent project activities.

Actually being in Nairobi and speaking to people working on the ground, the reality of the future challenges with regards to managing water, energy and food security in cities dawned on me.

The global urban population is projected to reach 6.3 billion in 2050 – every second the urban population grows by 2 people. With a majority of the global population living in cities, demand for food, energy and water will be highest in urban centres. We know that ecosystem services and the water resources they provide, or ‘natural infrastructure’, are integral to these three securities.

In Africa, high hydro-climatic variability, limited storage, aging water infrastructures and rising demand undermine the African water sector. With more than 60 transboundary rivers in Africa, developing large-scale infrastructure to manage water use and avoid conflicts is a huge challenge.  Infrastructure development is therefore a key ingredient for economic growth.

In the report “Africa’s -Infrastructure: A Time for Transformation” it was estimated that over US$90 billion per year to 2020 will be needed for infrastructure investments in Africa. Almost half of this amount is needed to address the continent’s current power supply requirements and boost Africa’s economic growth potential. Current spending is half of what is needed.

Chronic power shortages affect many African countries. The energy generation capacity of 48 Sub Saharan African countries is 68 gigawatts, about the same as Spain. Over 25 percent of that capacity is unavailable because of aging plants and poor maintenance.  If we look at irrigation infrastructure, some 39 million hectares of agricultural land in Africa is deemed physically suitable for irrigation. However, physical suitability does not necessarily entail economic viability.

Reconnecting these facts with reality and understanding what these reports mean – what’s really going on, for me, this is what this week has been all about – what the nexus really means to an engineer working for Nairobi Water fixing pipes for drinking water supply, or a strategic relations manager at Abengoa, a private company that applies innovative technology solutions for sustainability in the energy and environment sectors.

And this is the thing – we can’t just talk about dams. Discussion about water infrastructure often quickly turns to discussion about dams. And yes, they play a major part in our Nexus Dialogue on Water Infrastructure, but nexus solutions are also found in small scale technologies and other infrastructure, such as piping for water supply, drip irrigation and water re-use technologies.

And it is through dialogues about these technologies and solutions that we find an entry point to engage and align with the other sectors of the nexus, food and energy but also with the WASH (Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene) sector. The nexus space does open up dialogue about the inter-linkages of the sectors and provides an opportunity to move outside the ‘water box’ and engage with other stakeholders. But key to these dialogues is language and terminology.

Communicating on the nexus is challenging and many people find the term a bit dry. For me, with a background in geography, understanding the interaction between water, food and energy – the nexus – is very much a ‘systems approach’. The idea of a closed loop system, where instead of using a resource and then disposing of it (following a ‘conventional linear approach’) understanding that once the resource is used at one point in the system, it then gets taken back around through ‘resource recovery’.

With the focus on the IWA Congress so heavily on WASH, and with a background in the sector myself, I can’t help but come away thinking that there is a lot of learning and sharing to be done between the WASH world and the water management world. Better collaboration between these two fields would uncover some interesting solutions. The Nexus Dialogue is about bridging the gaps between sectors of water, energy and food, but we mustn’t forget the WASH sector.

For more information, please contact rebecca.welling@iucn.org