Tackling trade-offs in the food-water-energy nexus: lessons for the SDGs

11 September 2014 10:30 - 13:00 GMT+01 (BST)
Public event
Streamed live online



Prof. Melissa Leach - Director, Institute of Development Studies.



Peter Newborne - Research Associate, ODI, on the Brazil case study.

Andrew Scott - Research Fellow, ODI, overview of progress in development and the water-energy-food nexus.

Nina Weitz - Research Associate, Stockholm Environment Institute, on the the relevance of the water-energy-food nexus to the proposed Sustainable Development Goals and their implementation.


Joël Ouedraogo - Executive Director, Fédération Nationale des Groupements Naam (FNGN), on the Burkina Faso case study (video interview).

Amanda Lenhardt - Research Officer, ODI, introducing the Burkina Faso case study and video interview with Joël Ouedraogo.





Ahead of the UN Climate Summit in September, ODI and CDKN bring you two days of events focused on environmental sustainability and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). On 10 September, an event hosted by CDKN will share and discuss perspectives from the South on how climate change should be reflected in the SDGs. This will be followed, on 11 September, by a closer look at the food-water-energy nexus and how countries across three continents are managing the challenge of reducing poverty while developing sustainably. Book your places today.


Achieving poverty eradication and sustained progress in development will depend upon the use of natural resources as we enter a new era of post-2015 sustainable development goals (SDGs). The longer-term sustainability of natural resources, threatened by population and income growth, can be a low priority for many policy-makers in developing countries faced by the immediate challenges of poverty and low productivity. But how these development objectives are achieved can enhance sustainability, through appropriate policies and practices. In particular, it requires the integration of policy, planning and implementation across sectors – especially food, water and energy. National interpretation and implementation of SDG targets will also require integration across these sectors.


This event examined how certain developing countries have tackled the trade-offs inherent within the food-water-energy nexus, balancing environmental concerns with the need for development, and it will reflect on the importance of integrating across sectors for the implementation of the SDGs. New research conducted as part of ODI’s Development Progress project will be discussed, including:


  • Case studies on sustainable energy and development in Viet Nam and Brazil
  • A case study on sustainable agricultural techniques in Burkina Faso
  • A case study on water resource management in China
  • A report on development progress and the food-water-energy nexus over the past two decades


The launch included a public event with a panel of experts, followed by an invited roundtable to allow for further inputs and more in-depth discussion. 


The event was opened by Prof. Melissa Leach, Director of the Institute of Development Studies who provided an overview of the importance of considering a nexus approach when measuring progress in development. She suggested in order to achieve a better balance between the use of natural resources to ensure long term sustainability, real tensions of immediate livelihood needs, economic and political pressures need to be managed. Whilst policy makers are still grappling with ways to manage these issues on the ground, according to Prof. Leach the food-water-energy nexus provides a powerful way to think about the challenges and integrate the ways in which people use natural resources. Handing over to the panel, Prof. Leach noted that the Development Progress project’s case studies are important contributions to the debates around the nexus.

Andrew Scott, Environment Dimension Lead for Development Progress, linked up the Development Progress research and the concept of the nexus. He explained that policy decisions tend to be made when considering sector specific factors whereas a holistic decision making process would be far more beneficial. In Andrew’s view, when dealing with water, energy and food – complex systems in their own right – we need to consider the complexities of their relationships with each other as well as context specific matters where systems are being implemented in different landscapes. In order to understand the trade-offs and synergies of the nexus on the ground, context specific insights are required and by using a case study approach to research this, the hope is to how these factors are impacting development.

Peter Newborne, Research Associate, ODI went on to present the Development Progress’ case study on sustainable energy in Brazil, with a focus on a ‘big country’ perspective of energy and water and featuring observations and lessons from the nexus approach. He began by situating the concept of the food-water-energy nexus in Brazil, where the principle source of electricity supply is hydropower. Peter noted that there are several key challenges in running a grid of the magnitude faced in Brazil through hydropower including competition for water usage. Major interests in the country are behind the current policy direction regarding power but these include aggressive proposals to further hydropower expansion in the Amazon where decisions to build these large power plants are made long before local consultation, indicating a lack of nexus thinking in planning processes. With energy being the dominant driver in this nexus, it is vital to consider alternative water demands for agriculture and human development to ensure a balance in real terms for local people.

The next research to be presented was on sustainable agriculture in Burkina Faso. Amanda Lenhardt, Research Officer, ODI introduced a video interview carried out with Joël Ouedraogo, a representative from the FNGN farmers’ union in Burkina Faso, to frame the case study. Amanda noted that the initial situation in Burkina Faso in the 1980s was a prime example of unsustainable agriculture where over-farming had led to large parts of the country becoming deserts, a fragile situation which was exacerbated by climate change where rain patterns became unpredictable and the country was struck by some of the highest levels of poverty in the world. Over the last 20 years though, the situation has become has begun to be reversed, through the reclamation of desert land and their conversion into farmable terrain. She outlined the focus of the case study, asking questions such as how the shift towards a more sustainable farming system had come about? The research found that simple but effective farming techniques have been implemented, designed to conserve water and regenerate the land. The shift has been context driven and relevant to the local setting where agricultural outputs have increased and water withdrawals decreased.

The video interview was then played, where Joël Ouedraogo detailed ways in which farmers are being trained to implement simple yet effective methods of shifting towards sustainable agricultural practices to produce healthy yields and rehabilitate tired lands.

The final presentation came from Nina Weitz, a Research Associate at the Stockholm Environment Institute, who looked at the importance of nexus thinking for the Sustainable Development Goals. In order to establish relevant and transformative goals for sustainable development, she argued that there is a need to address the root causes of complex and interlinked development challenges. In order to ensure long-term sustainability, Ms. Weitz believes it to be vital that we integrate the social, economic and environmental dimensions of development, with such changes needing to occur in rich countries as well as poor. Meeting the Millennium Development Goals has been difficult in part because intersectoral thinking has not taken place. For the SDGs, Ms. Weitz proposes clarifying shared interests and aggregating the use of resources by several targets - a final framework which avoids conflicting or overlapping targets will serve to maximise the potential synergies and efficient solutions. She concluded that nexus thinking can support planners at a country level through a bottom up process that assists in conceptualising, visualising and quantifying the trade-offs and synergies to inform decision-making and prioritisation of targets, connecting country level policy processes to the global SDG process.