The WEFE nexus and the climate crisis: Major challenges, great opportunities

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The all-encompassing nature of the climate crisis means that it is deeply connected to water, energy, food, and ecosystems (WEFE). But how can decision makers use these connections to support climate mitigation and adaptation goals and sustainable development initiatives? This was the urgent question at the heart of the latest webinar from the CGIAR Initiative on NEXUS Gains, held on Wednesday May 15, 2024. “This webinar explores the complex relationships between the WEFE nexus and one of the greatest challenges of our time, the climate crisis,” said Sidra Khalid, a National Researcher in Gender and Social Inclusion at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) Pakistan and the webinar’s moderator.

Resource security in the Indus Basin

The first speaker to address this complex topic was Professor Walter Immerzeel, Professor of Mountain Hydrology at Utrecht University, Netherlands. Professor Immerzeel reported on findings from the four-year SustainIndus project, which sought to develop sustainable pathways that help decision makers and practitioners find long-term, climate-smart solutions to provide food, water, and energy to everyone in the Indus Basin.

“The Indus Basin is fascinating for different reasons,” he explained. “Its upper regions have enormous amounts of ice and snow, but its downstream areas are arid. It contains the megacities, hydropower facilities, and the world’s largest irrigation scheme. It is also home to a rapidly growing and urbanizing population, above-average warming, groundwater depletion, and significant socioeconomic changes. All of this makes the Indus an extremely water-stressed basin.”

The considerable challenges facing the Indus Basin demand holistic approaches, Professor Immerzeel stressed. To help address the complexity surrounding holistic decision making, SustainIndus ran multiple projections, showing how a combination of climate change and policy choices – whether to pursue food security, water security, or to continue with business as usual – will affect resource security in the Indus Basin throughout the 21st century. “Trying to achieve water and food targets will be challenging, and will be highly dependent on policy priorities,” he concluded. “Adaptive land-use changes and climate-smart measures are essential for future water and food security.”

New economic models

The challenges of enacting nexus solutions in the context of climate change were explored in more detail by Dipak Gyawali, an Academician of the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology and a former Minister of Water Resources for Nepal. He noted that climate adaptation was proving especially difficult for hydrological engineers like him. “Climate change tells us that the future is not going to be like the past. But the way we design water infrastructure – such as dams, canals, and irrigation channels – is based on old data for river flows, rainfall, and flood maximums.” The result, he warned, was a lot of uncertainty in hydrological engineering. This translates to inadequate water infrastructure – as seen during the 2022 Pakistan floods and the more recent flash flooding in Dubai.

For nexus thinking to achieve on-the-ground transformations of resource management, Mr Gyawali stressed that policymakers need to embrace new economic models. “We are trapped in a global and national policy framework based on gross domestic product, which is tied to the need for unlimited growth,” he said. “This has been the bane of sensible economic and ecological ideas, and we need to get away from it. We need to think about capping growth and of outcomes other than profit. It’s a big political challenge, and it won’t be easy.”

Bottom-up solutions

The discussion stayed focused on Nepal for the start of the panel session. Dr Bimala Rai Paudyal, adjunct Professor of Development Studies at Nepal’s Agriculture and Forestry University and a former Minister of Foreign Affairs, added that another significant challenge was operationalizing nexus thinking. “In Nepal, our policies talk a lot about coordination. But we have too many institutions at the central level, which leads to siloed thinking.”

Professor Paudyal added that some of the more promising practices in Nepal have instead come from the local level. “Climate-smart village-level planning, for example, is integrating water, agriculture, and biodiversity issues while improving the climate resilience of villages and incorporating gender and social inclusion aspects,” she said. “So the motto should be: start at the local level.” Building local-level capacity will not only produce on-the-ground impacts, but will also influence decision making higher up Nepal’s federal structure.

The second panelist was Dr Mohsin Hafeez, Director of Water, Food and Ecosystems at IWMI Pakistan and NEXUS Gains coordinator for the Indus Basin. Responding to Professor Immerzeel’s presentation, he observed that an extra challenge of the Indus Basin is that it is shared between four countries – China, India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan – with the limited trust of each other. He also pointed out that a lot of current policies in the Indus basin are gender blind, adding that the 2022 Pakistan floods had a greater impact on the health of pregnant women and marginalized communities than other groups.

Dr Hafeez concluded by reiterating the pressing need for systems approaches in Pakistan, Nepal, and other countries. “Everyone is talking about nexus approaches, but there is no champion. And there are still siloes in government.” Without rapid political change to address these and other challenges raised in the webinar, it will be increasingly difficult to implement nexus solutions to the climate crisis.

Didn’t catch the webinar? You can also listen to the podcast:

View the presentation slides by Professor Walter Immerzeel

View the presentation slides by Dipak Gyawali

Learn more about all the webinars in the series on the NEXUS Gains Talks landing page and subscribe to the NEXUS Gains newsletter to be the first to hear about upcoming webinars.

This work was carried out under the CGIAR Initiative on NEXUS Gains, which is grateful for the support of CGIAR Trust Fund contributors:


Banner image: A drying lake in Thanthirimale, Anuradhapura District, Sri Lanka. Photo by Samurdhi Ranasinghe/IWMI.

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