Beyond buzzwords: Turning nexus thinking into nexus action

Interconnecting to make a significant change

By Stuart Orr, Freshwater Manager, WWF International and David Grant, Senior Manager: Water Risk and Partnerships, SABMiller
There was a clear winner for buzzword of World Water Week: Nexus. Search the World Water Week programme for keyword “nexus,” and you would find 17 options – more seminars that a single person could possibly attend. So, what’s all the fuss about?

It’s a good sign that policymakers, companies and NGOs have realized that water, food and energy are inextricably linked. But we should take care that there is real substance behind this new bit of jargon. It’s not enough to repeat in 17 different sessions that we all need to take a “nexus approach” when allocating and managing resources. A nexus approach must result in positive action that enhances water, food and energy security for real people; or, at the very least, manages the trade-offs to minimize harm.

Freshwater ecosystems sit at the very heart of the nexus – we need healthy rivers, lakes and aquifers if we hope to capitalize on nexus thinking to enhance human well-being. In WWF’s view, the lower Mekong could be ground zero for the nexus.

The Mekong River is a freshwater ecosystem that holds the key to both food and energy security. Home to some 850 fish species (second only to the Amazon for biodiversity), the Mekong is the world’s most productive inland fishery. WWF presented during World Water Week a new study showing that hydropower dams planned for the lower Mekong would decimate fish populations and, with them, the primary source of protein for 60 million people. Clearly, this is a place where nexus solutions are needed. With construction already underway on the first lower mainstem dam, there’s no time to waste.

The litmus test for nexus thinking is whether decision makers in the Mekong can turn concept into reality and choose a new path – one that doesn’t optimize one aspect over the others, and none at the expense of biodiversity.

But the nexus doesn’t just exist in the realm of public policy. Nexus thinking, and a better understanding of the interconnectedness of resources, can result in better business decisions. This begins with understanding the role of water in the value chain and assessing how water scarcity could impact the bottom line.

A business dependent on agricultural commodities, for example, can only fully understand its vulnerability if it assesses the availability of water to feed the crops it needs. In 2009, SABMiller was the first major corporate to publish the water footprint of its whole value chain. It showed that it can take anything between around 45 litres and 150 litres of water to make one litre of beer, depending on geography. But over 90% of that water is used in growing the ingredients for beer and only a small percentage is used in the brewing process itself.

Forward-looking companies must assess not only the risks of mismanaging this resource nexus, but also the opportunities created by integrating resource-saving initiatives into long-term business plans.

Companies presenting at the 17 nexus-related sessions at World Water Week demonstrate this is already happening, and in the process facilitating better policy. This is water stewardship in action, and it's the only way we can ensure the future security of the resources that our economy, society and ecosystems depend on.

For more on World Water Week articles and events, check out our roundup blog.