Picture: 123 RF / BORGOGNIELS
Picture: 123 RF / BORGOGNIELS

On January 1 2016, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) came into effect. According to the UN Development Programme (UNDP), "These goals are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity."

The 17 goals seek to tackle the root causes of poverty and include such aims as zero hunger, quality education, and climate action. While the UNDP makes the point that the goals are intended to be viewed as interconnected, the reality in many countries and regions may not reflect this.

Indeed, meeting the 2030 targets in Southern Africa — a region where development challenges frequently cross borders — will come with challenges.

Through its recent report, "The food-energy-water nexus as a lens for delivering the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in Southern Africa", the World Wide Fund for Nature SA (WWF SA) proposes that analysing the goals in terms of the food-energy-water nexus offers the potential to view at least three of these goals (namely Goal 2: zero hunger, Goal 6: clean water and sanitation, and Goal 7: affordable and clean energy) in an interconnected manner and to effectively address these targets in the region.

Put simply, the food-energy-water nexus implies that the three sectors of food, energy and water security are inextricably linked with actions in one area generally impacting on one or both of the others.

It may seem obvious to point out that water provision requires energy (such as for the operation of water tanks), and that energy supply often needs water (for example, for cooling), and that the production of food needs both energy and water (such as for diesel machinery and irrigation). In fact, not only are these sectors interdependent, but they may also pose particular risks to one another — for example, when energy production leads to water pollution. As obvious as it may seem, governments and regions frequently adopt a siloed approach to providing security in these three sectors.

Not only are these sectors interdependent, but they may also pose particular risks to one another — for example, when energy production leads to water pollution

South Asia

Southern Africa would do well to learn from the experiences of South Asian countries where agencies tend to work in a fragmented and isolated way, often with unintended consequences. This lack of co-ordination has resulted in the unsustainable use of resources and threatens the long-term sustainability of food, water and energy in the region, posing challenges to achieving the SDGs. Instead of promoting development, free water and subsidised electricity seem to have both encouraged the over-exploitation of resources and led to an under-investment in water and energy-saving technologies.

In the absence of a nexus lens, countries and regions run the risk of competition between specific targets. This could lead to unintended consequences whereby one goal is favoured to the detriment of another.

In the Southern African context, viewing the SDGs through the food-energy-water lens makes it possible to explain the implications for other goals and achieve targets across multiple goals. Clearly, silo thinking must be abandoned in favour of a new approach to regional co-operation if we are to address the common challenges of the region.

In the long term, we cannot manage these sectors disparately if we hope to guarantee a sustainable supply of all three resources. Greater policy coherence is imperative if we hope to de-couple increased food production from water and energy intensity. Trade in food, energy and water occurs across borders, as do the impacts of climate change. Therefore, not only a nexus approach but also a regional approach should be integrated into policies.

A regional nexus approach has the potential to promote an understanding of this interconnectedness, but to see the benefits, a significant shift will be required in the decision-making process whereby cross-sectoral, regional co-ordination must be pursued to strengthen synergies among the three sectors.

• "The food-energy-water nexus as a lens for delivering the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in Southern Africa" is a report produced by WWF SA and funded by the International Climate Initiative of the Federal Ministry for the Environment of Germany. Access the full WWF paper here .

Von Bormann is senior manager of the policy and futures unit at WWF SA

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