Our researchers shine a spotlight on the social impacts of integrated resource management with the CGIAR NEXUS Gains Initiative.
Nexus approaches help conceptualize complex human and environmental issues
The world is currently facing a multi-pronged humanitarian and ecological emergency as we grapple with the impacts of the three ‘C’s: Covid, climate and conflict. The confluence of these crises has given more urgency than ever to generating innovative approaches for accelerating sustainable development, and to safeguard the fragile gains that have already been made in this regard.
The water-energy-food-ecosystem (WEFE) nexus is a cross-sectoral concept offering a holistic perspective of the interconnections among agriculture, energy production, water resources, and ecosystem health. Currently, agriculture uses about 70% of available global freshwater and 30% of global energy, and 90% of power generation around the world is water-intensive. To contend with the complexities of these relationships, ‘nexus thinking’ has emerged as a way of conceptualizing and addressing trade-offs, compromises and potential synergies among water, energy, and food.
However, most emerging nexus approaches have been narrowly focused on resource efficiency and technocratic ‘fixes’ that don’t adequately consider the impacts of resource use and development on diverse groups of resource users and managers. Critically, WEFE approaches often fail to ask who nexus innovations are actually serving: who is making decisions, on whose behalf, who is doing the work, who is bearing the risks or costs, and who is reaping the benefits?
Insufficient attention to social impacts of WEFE nexus management
Failing to consider the social impacts of WEFE nexus management risks perpetuating or even accentuating pre-existing power imbalances and inequalities in the populations where the approach is being adopted. For example, certain farming practices may use less energy and water but heavily increase unpaid manual labor burdens, which often disproportionately fall to women. The nexus literature currently offers little guidance on how to effectively integrate gender and social inclusion (GESI) considerations and ensure that all stakeholders, including those who are socio-economically marginalized, have a voice in decision-making.
Researchers at the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT searched the most comprehensive nexus knowledge hub, (visited 25/01/2023) and found that of the hub’s 2,112 resources, only three were tagged with the keyword “gender”. A search on Web of Science (18/01/2023) further underscored how little attention GESI topics receive in the nexus literature. Of the search’s 2,013 unique research articles containing the keywords “nexus” AND “water” AND “energy” AND “food OR agriculture”, only 1.2% mention “gender”, 0.55%, mention “environmental justice”, and a mere 0.1% mention “social inclusion” in the abstract, title or keywords (Figure 1).
Similarly, an internet search surfaced only 18 nexus-related training and conference materials, of which 12 were open access. Only two of these explicitly discussed aspects of inclusion or gender, and promoted methodologies to capture how different gender groups may experience the impact of a nexus innovation. Most of these open access materials remained heavily focused on biophysical challenges and technological solutions without considering how risks, costs and benefits associated with these technologies could affect different social groups in the short and long term.
Building a people-centric nexus approach
CGIAR’s NEXUS Gains Initiative is working to change that. The initiative aims to realize multiple benefits across water, energy, food and ecosystems (with a focus on forests and agro-biodiversity) by leading global nexus thinking and providing tools, guidelines, training and facilitation for analysis and research for development. Toward that end, NEXUS Gains has developed a learning module focused on the meaningful integration of GESI into approaches for use by policy-makers, practitioners, and researchers who are interested in learning more about socially just and responsible nexus governance.
“All development interventions have both planned and unplanned outcomes”,
says Riina Jalonen, Scientist at the Alliance and lead author of the new GESI learning guide. “While specific tools and guidelines are lacking on how to account for these in WEFE projects, there are many good approaches and tools from the broader agriculture and natural resources management research that can be readily applied to nexus considerations. For example, setting aside some time and resources for a stakeholder analysis during project design will help understand how the benefits and costs of planned interventions will be distributed and which vulnerable social groups need particular attention to safeguard their interests.”
To overcome women’s marginalization in male-dominated water, energy, food, and environmental sectors, NEXUS Gains will also support the leadership of women professionals and their equitable influence in decision-making in these sectors. The need for such support was highlighted by women working in these sectors in Nepal in a new scoping study focused on capacities and needs for developing and implementing nexus approaches. In order to reach their full potential as nexus leaders, these women professionals expressed that they need a more supportive work environment, confidence-building, and a strengthening of their capacities in nexus science to enable them to speak up and be heard.
By working to raise awareness of and to challenge the barriers that women face at all levels of nexus management and governance, NEXUS Gains aims to help shape and advance the agenda of fair, equitable, and responsibly managed water, energy, food, and ecosystems for all.