A “nexus” is simply a bond, or a form of connection within a group. It has come to be used increasingly to describe the inter-connectedness and inter-dependencies between the food, energy and water (FEW) sectors, and how emerging scarcity in natural resources is playing out worldwide across these sectors. Increasingly, economic development decisions are coming face to face with tradeoffs and the need to seek greater efficiencies of resource use. Pressure on resources could eventually result in shortages and lead to greater risks of food, energy and water insecurity. As solutions are sought, decisions made in favour of one of these sectors can either help or harm the other sectors. In the past, some negative repercussions were unanticipated and often irreversible, due to the lack of systems thinking from the outset and an inability to move beyond silos. Significant environmental damage and loss of resources has resulted. Nexus assessments need to consider both human well-being and environmental outcomes, and benefits of nexus-based decisions should be balanced across different sectors and human needs and foster long-term cooperation. This also requires a focus on the future and additional resource constraints (e.g. water) and needs (e.g. energy) resulting from climate change.
Although true at planetary level (witness the global interest in understanding our “planetary boundaries” and the impacts of climate change), the nexus also holds true at finer spatial scales, from national to sub-national, and particularly at river catchment or basin/sub-basin scale. Catchment landscapes are excellent examples of integration between water resources, land use and food production, and the energy required for economic activity. In addition, they often contain human settlements with associated resource uses and impacts, and in some cases are vital habitats for biological organisms and providers of essential ecosystem services.
A catchment-scale perspective is important for the understanding and management of impacts, synergies and benefits, as shown by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA, 2005) and the water sector’s Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) approach of the last 15 years or so.
In South Africa and in the Western Cape Province, integrated systems thinking has emerged strongly in policy development and there are many examples where development planning is attempting to put this into practice (e.g. the Integrated Development Plans and the Spatial Development Frameworks submitted periodically by Local and District Municipalities). However, practitioners at local level still struggle to deal with the complexities, so that under given time constraints and absence of consolidated sources of relevant local information across the sectors, decision making is still rarely based on a balanced holistic assessment of inter-dependencies and trade-offs.
The FEWLB Nexus Project is working on demonstrating the critical importance of integrated consideration of food, energy, water, land use and biodiversity (FEWLB) in local economic development. This is tested in a system/region under intense resource pressure, the Berg River catchment (Western Cape Province). The Western Cape Government (WCG) has chosen to support a green economic development path – aiming to facilitate increased investment in new and expanded market opportunities that support a low carbon, resource efficient and socially inclusive economic pathway. This commitment to the green economy requires us to have a clear understanding of, for example, the flow of resources in the economy, or the impact of one resource on the sustainability of other resources – the FEWLB nexus.