College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

UKZN Helps Convert Water-Energy-Food Research into Action

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Since the emergence of the water-energy-food (WEF) nexus at the 2011 World Economic Forum as a transformative approach to complex issues arising in these areas, researchers at UKZN and the Water Research Commission (WRC) have built discourse around WEF nexus knowledge, culminating in a paper about putting this knowledge to work.

Professor Albert Modi, Professor Tafadzwa Mabhaudhi, Dr Nafisa Sobratee and Professor Rob Slotow of UKZN’s Centre for Transformative Agricultural and Food Systems (CTAFS), and Dr Aidan Senzanje of Bioresources Engineering, and Professor Michael Jacobson of the Pennsylvania State University in the United States, joined the WRC’s Mr Dhesigen Naidoo, Dr Luxon Nhamo, Professor Sylvester Mpandeli and Dr Stanley Liphadzi as co-authors of the paper.

Titled: Operationalising the Water-Energy-Food Nexus Through the Theory of Change, the open access paper details pathways to guide policy and decision-making on operationalising the WEF nexus for southern Africa through a consultative and iterative Theory of Change. This follows research published in 2020 that described the WEF nexus integrative analytical model developed by some of these researchers.

Mabhaudhi, with the input of Mpandeli and others, established WEF nexus research as a key aspect of the work of CTAFS, saying he noticed practical problems in these areas that could be tackled from a nexus approach while conducting his PhD research and so worked towards building a multi-disciplinary network within and outside UKZN to develop new WEF nexus knowledge.

The WEF nexus is an integrated, cross-sectoral approach to managing natural resources in a manner that secures sustainable development in all three sectors, which are intricately connected and inter-dependent, with challenges in one affecting the other two. With accelerating environmental change and growing demands on resources, effective management of all three aspects is crucial, particularly in parts of the world where resource scarcities, increasing populations, environmental degradation and climate change threaten sustainable socio-economic development.

‘The challenge arises in effective implementation of the WEF nexus approach and the translation of knowledge into action. Cross-cutting challenges are systemic, complex and vicious in nature, with responses often sector- or discipline-based due to our sectoral governance systems,’ said Mabhaudhi.

‘Consequently, most administrative, implementation and monitoring and evaluation mechanisms are sector-based, making it difficult to transition integrated approaches from theory to practice.’

The Theory of Change outlined by this research provides pathways to overcome barriers to WEF nexus operationalisation, mitigate trade-offs and strengthen synergies for achieving simultaneous WEF securities, achieve sustainable socio-economic development, and inform the science-policy-practice interface.

‘This established a shared vision behind which all actors can rally, and shows plausible pathways and activities on how the goal can be achieved,’ said Mabhaudhi.

‘These pathways are contextualised for different user groups across science, policy and practitioner domains, and also show how the different domains can interact to achieve the goal.’

Operationalising the WEF nexus is important for achieving several of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and will inform sustainable pathways towards regional priorities linked to achieving WEF securities, job and wealth creation, improved livelihoods and well-being, and regional integration.

Following on from this Theory of Change, researchers are working on conducting case studies at different scales and developing scenarios for the WEF nexus for informing strategic planning in support of achieving the SDGs and the African Union’s Agenda 2063.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photographs: Supplied and Christine Cuénod