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Grappling with inequality in food, energy and water research

As the world’s cities, from Mumbai to Nairobi, grow at explosive rates, governments are struggling to provide residents with necessities, ensuring that those living in informal settlements, where sewage system are sparse and power is patchy, get access to clean drinking water and reliable electricity.

Such challenges have helped give rise to a new area of research that scientists call the food, energy, water nexus, or “the nexus.” This field of study recognises that these three resources are not just important for human livelihood and economic vitality but are also deeply connected. Decisions affecting one can impact on the others. It’s become a popular subject over the last decade: Research institutions addressing food, energy and water have sprung up around the world, and the nexus is now the focus of large-scale funding programmes from nations like the United States and Japan.

Some experts argue, however, that nexus research may be growing too fast. In a new commentary published in Nature Climate Change, urban researchers have raised several issues that they say are critical for the nexus research community to address. In many cases, these issues revolve around questions of inequality and power: Who wins and who loses when leaders make decisions about food, energy and water?

“We felt like it was important to interject some of the most important issues to be taken up in the nexus research community before this research advances further — before this wave of funding moves onto some other area of focus,” says Timon McPhearson, an urban ecologist at The New School in New York and a co-author of the new commentary.

Security for whom?

These issues are important because, he says, nexus research has huge potential. In part, that is because food, energy and water are inseparable from human wellbeing, explains Paty Romero Lankao, an urban researcher at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, United States. “Just consider not having water to shower in or water to drink. Just consider not having electricity,” says Lankao, a co-author of the commentary. “If you don’t have any of these, then you are not part of society as we are used to it.”

These resources can be linked to each other in surprising ways. Romero Lankao points to Mexico City. This sprawling metropolis draws in hundreds of millions of cubic metres of water every year from nearby regions, including the Lerma and Cutzamala river basins to the west and southwest — in some cases pumping water hundreds of metres uphill at a massive energy cost and displacing water from agricultural areas. In the drive to secure one resource, water, Mexico City has wide-ranging impacts on others, from crops that people eat to the electricity that powers their homes.

It is a case that also highlights the inequalities at the heart of food, energy and water resources, Romero Lankao says: “If we want to bring water from other basins to provide for the needs of a city, we will need to consider that sometimes we will affect the livelihoods of farmers.”

Both Romero Lankao and McPhearson contend that the nexus research community has largely failed to address such issues of social and political power. When researchers say that they want to protect food, energy and water security, McPhearson says, they need to ask: “Security for whom?”

Debra Davidson agrees. She’s an environmental sociologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, and also helped to write the new commentary. She says that scientists often look at resources like an equation: You have a certain amount of water going to a certain number of people, and you either meet their needs or not. But reality is not that simple.

“Understanding what constitutes food, water or energy security in a given city means not just looking at those material resources themselves but how they’re getting consumed and who’s doing the consuming,” Davidson says. “And all of that makes science really messy.”

Key questions

To grapple with that messiness, Davidson and her colleagues suggest that researchers should ask three questions before launching new projects focusing on the food, energy, water (FEW) nexus: “When and where is FEW security being examined and pursued? What interacting FEW systems are being considered? By and for whom are these systems being secured?”

In practical terms, that may involve defining what researchers mean by resource “security”: Is it national security, focusing on the stability of nation states, or a more holistic type of security? Davidson explains that in Canada, many indigenous groups have a long history of hunting caribou for food. But today, caribou populations are plummeting, in part because of warming temperatures in the Arctic. “If we only think of food security in terms of caloric intake, we can just say, ‘Fine, ship up some replacement calories for those communities,’” she says. “But that would not be considered a sufficient solution for the sake of those communities and what’s important to them.”

To get to the bottom of challenges like that, Davidson says that nexus research can’t just revolve around the work of natural scientists like ecologists and geologists. It also has to involve social scientists who are trained in studying human messiness: how people make decisions and how those decisions are influenced by inequality.

Romero Lankao goes one step further. “You need to engage in dialogues whereby all the disciplines have an equal say. There is no discipline that's better than others,” she says. “But it’s equally important to engage with those stakeholders who are involved in the nexus, not only those who make the decisions but also those who are affected by the decisions.”

In the case of Mexico City, a nexus researcher might partner with government officials to answer key questions, but also urban residents who get their water from taps or rural farmers. Lankao says that in her own research, she often holds two sets of workshops to gather information about how people use resources: One with the people in power, and another set of workshops for those who don’t usually get a say in big decisions.

Such a scientific strategy, often called transdisciplinary research, is notoriously difficult to carry out. Davidson, however, says that the wave of enthusiasm and funding for nexus research provides the natural and social science communities with a unique opportunity to do it well. They can design numerous, small-scale projects that each approach studying the nexus in different ways — discovering what works and what doesn’t.

“We need to learn how to do nexus-based research,” she says. “We need someone who is going to take a  bottom-up approach in Lethbridge, Alberta, that maybe involves a set of six different disciplines. Maybe somewhere else we need to do something that is maybe a bit more structured and includes a different set of disciplines. And let’s see what comes out of those different approaches.”


Paty Romero Lankao served as a Scientific Steering Committee member of Urbanization and Global Environmental Change (UGEC), a global research project of Future Earth that closed in early 2017. Romero Lankao and Timon McPhearson are both part of the Development Team for the Future Earth Urban Knowledge-Action Network.

Future Earth has launched a new research collaboration addressing the nexus called the Water-Energy-Food Nexus Knowledge-Action Network. You can read more about this collaboration here or read this recent blog.