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Joined-up thinking on water, energy and food

The Niger river in Ayorou town in Niger's Tillaberi region
The Niger river in Ayorou town in Niger's Tillaberi region, one of the worst affected by the current food crisis in the country (Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN)

Africa’s third longest river, the Niger, is a source of water, food and energy for nine West African countries. But frequent droughts induced by a changing climate, and exacerbated by rapidly growing demand, pose a threat to water availability and livelihoods.

Big hydroelectric projects involving the building of dams on the river are restricting flow rates and affecting the lives of a million downstream herders, rice growers and people engaged in fishing, scientists warn.

The problem is that plans to harness water for electricity, irrigation and other uses were being developed separately both at the national and regional levels. Relevant officials were not talking to each other about the river and its ecosystems, said Sébastien Treyer, director of programmes at the Paris-based Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI) who led a recent study on the basin.

However, countries and communities can overcome the problem of how to share water resources if they adopt what scientists call “the nexus approach”, a key agenda item at the week-long Water Forum in Marseilles, France. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research will convene a high level panel on the approach at the Forum on 16 March.

The nexus approach seeks to find solutions based on the interconnections between various sectors or disciplines and is being widely regarded along with “resilience” as a term that could revive sustainable development. 

The term “sustainable development” - given currency by the 1992 Earth Summit - is a “nexus” between environment and development.

“However, after Rio [the 1992 summit] we lost a little of this feeling and the nexus faded away. Now, 20 years later, we must reinvigorate this message of sustainable development through a nexus approach," said Klaus Topfer, executive director of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Germany, at a conference on the nexus approach in Bonn in November 2011.


Imagine a mango orchard which is home to three groups of people. One of the groups depends on the orchard for twigs and branches which it sells as firewood (wood sellers); another harvests the fruit and sells it (fruit sellers); and the third depends on fishing in a pond protected by the trees (the fishing community).

Over a period of two years, the area begins to experience rather severe winters, creating a huge demand for firewood. To keep up with the demand, the wood sellers begin to cut down trees, affecting the fruit sellers’ income. In a few years, with the loss of tree cover, the land in the orchard begins to degrade; the pond begins to silt up, affecting the fishing community. With the loss of forest cover, rains in the area become erratic, affecting the growth and flowering of the mango trees. Within a decade the communities become poor, food insecure and conflict-ridden.

At least 15 million people are estimated to be at risk of food insecurity in countries in the Sahel at the moment

What if the wood sellers (with sustainability of the orchard in mind) had consulted the other two groups before cutting down the trees? Consultation could possibly have led to a decision to log trees selectively - older ones with low yields and those growing at a distance from the pond. The groups could also have made plans to plant new and faster growing varieties of mango to maintain tree cover. This would have been a “nexus approach” - with each community taking into account the interconnections between the differing demands they make on a shared resource.

Case study - Niger basin

In their case study on the Niger basin, Treyer and his team adopted the nexus approach with the support of the Economic Commission of Western African States (ECOWAS).

“The first idea was to organize a dialogue between these different plans and policy processes, so that they can assess to what extent they are or aren’t exerting too much pressure on water resources,” he said.

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Ideas began to emerge from the dialogue process: energy sources should be diversified; and officials began to consider accessing photovoltaic technology to produce solar energy. Too much emphasis on irrigation schemes which used dams to boost food security was ruled out.

Most countries in the region need to prioritize food security over other needs such as energy, said Gil Mahe, a scientist with France’s Institut de recherche pour le développement, based in Morocco. With scarce water resources, countries should rather focus attention on other ways to increase crop yields such as investing in improved soil fertility, added Mahe who has done considerable research on climate change impacts in West Africa.

It emerged that many small farmers would not benefit from irrigation schemes, "as their farms lie too far away from the river", said Treyer. The policy dialogue therefore also highlighted the need for investment to help rain-fed agriculture become more productive and stable.

The study is now involved in compiling data on the competition between food and energy production and ecosystems in the upper Niger and the inner Niger delta to help create awareness among policymakers.

Bonn conference

Development experts are urging governments and communities to focus on the nexus between water, food and energy - where linkages are evident and critical.

Prominent among them is Holger Hoff, a scientist with the Stockholm Environment Institute. His paper formed the basis of the November 2011 Bonn conference (jointly organized by the German government, the World Economic Forum and the World Wide Fund for Nature) which focused on the nexus approach. 

Hoff offered a word of caution. "It remains important to work on sectoral solutions with sectoral expertise and data, and not lower ambitions by simply referring to the nexus (`everything is connected with everything else’).

At the Bonn conference, experts proclaimed "nexus" as a bridge that could close the gap between the social, environmental and economic pillars of sustainable development.

Han Seung-Soo, chairman of the governing board of the Global Green Growth Institute in the Republic of Korea, echoed the views of many experts at the Bonn conference by saying that “the key word - nexus - signifies the challenge of Rio, which is to connect the dots between financial, social and environmental aspects of sustainable development." 


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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