Blue Sky Thinking at the Nexus Dialogue on Water, Energy and Food

An irrigation pivot watering a field of turnips.

The interdependency of water, energy and food – the nexus – is one of the critical issues of our time. The Water-Energy-Food Nexus Dialogue recently held a Symposium on Infrastructure Solutions in the Water-Energy-Food Nexus in Beijing. The Symposium was an important step forward, producing a set of recommendations that established broad policy principles for sustainable water infrastructure operation, management and optimisation in the nexus.

In fact, the Symposium had to be shifted from the original dates because of the 2014 APEC Summit.  The unexpected bonus of this disruption was that there was blue sky and fresh air! Consequently, the acronym APEC was given a new meaning in Beijing for a short time: Air Pollution Eventually Controlled.

Yet, the APEC induced blue skies were more like a mirage, which was beautiful but disappeared quickly. According to a report from the South China Morning Post, about 10,000 plants and factories from Beijing and six nearby provinces were temporarily closed during APEC, an additional 39,000 ran on reduced schedules to minimize pollution. But only a few days after the APEC finished, smog re-occupied Beijing.

The ephemerality of APEC blue pushed us to think beyond merely short-term solutions for air pollution or other challenges, to how to develop solutions for sustainable and integrated approaches that satisfy the complex linkages between water, energy and food. The Nexus Symposium contributed to the sustainability debate by building a platform for establishing cross-sectoral communications and encouraging technological, institutional and financial innovations in nexus management.

Discussions were held around five different themes, including clean technology (Cleantech), water stewardship and corporate engagement, investment pathways, natural infrastructures and policy/institutional arrangement. Bringing together key people from earlier events and new faces, the symposium provided the opportunity to share experiences and learning with Chinese experts; discuss findings from the global nexus dialogue to date, and to feed into the development of concepts and ideas; and identify broad policy principles that allow for multi-sector and multi-purpose infrastructure development.

The Beijing Symposium aimed to draw a comprehensive picture of the nexus, where both challenges and opportunities exist. It was encouraging to see efforts and investments in a variety of areas including: development of cleantech which supports water-energy-food security; assessment tools for trade-off analysis; governments that are creating the enabling environment to stimulate collaboration and joint solutions for shared benefits. We have reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the future trajectory of the nexus, that is moving from conflicts to cooperation, from silos to integration, from short-term expediency to long-term sustainability.

No matter how ephemeral the APEC blue is, we can’t deny that APEC gave China a big incentive to put continuous efforts to actualize its pledges on environmental protection and sustainable development. Similarly, the close of symposium is not the end of the Nexus Dialogue, but a catalyst for action – to understand, mitigate and optimize the impacts of investments in one sector on others. We hope the Symposium will create momentum, and that the nexus dialogue will influence the different sectors and have a wider sphere of influence in future decision-making in water-energy-food management.