The water, energy and food nexus

As I flew back from Bonn last week, on my way back from the Bonn 2011 Nexus Conference (16–18 November), one thing was clear to me. Corporate environmentalism is entrenching itself firmly in the corridors of global governance, and challenging its advance will require new strategies. The "in-your-face" approach of yesterday is being replaced with a softer, albeit more dangerous "corporate responsibility" garb. This softer path also seeks to ensure that civil society stakeholders are seen as party to the decisions.

The Bonn Nexus conference is symptomatic of the way that corporate environmentalism is developing. "The water, energy and food security nexus, Solutions for the Green Economy," as it is called, is an initiative of the federal government of Germany to develop specific contributions to the Rio+20 Conference. It is an important event because this is the first of several nexus conferences being planned to gain political support for advancing the green economy at Rio+20. The next follow-up conference is being organized by World Economic Forum and will be held in January 2012.

In its recognition of a "nexus," these conferences could be seen as a step forward. Two years ago, when we published a report on the need for integrated solutions for the water, climate and food crises, the idea of connections between these three sectors was simply not on any official agenda.

But the conference understood the "nexus" through a distinctive lens—that of the "green economy." This term has been coming to a new prominence over the last year or two. And what it actually means was brought out well in the Bonn proceedings. The majority of experts at the conference were from international institutions (including globally operating NGOs), and for-profit companies, with a limited number of experts and representatives from a broader group of smaller NGOs and the global South. Moreover most sessions seemed to be focused on the technocratic approach of increasing resource use efficiency. In fact, some of these concerns were brought up by us in a letter to the organizers of the Bonn 2011 Nexus Conference.

Resource use efficiency improvement is always a desirable objective, but a lot depends on how it is concretized. At Bonn, while increasing crop per drop was defined as part of green growth in agriculture, the "hows" were left undefined, thus leaving the field open for introduction of GMO crops, nanotechnology and synthetic biology. [This became clear, when in response to my intervention, in the strategy panel on creating more with less, the presenter answered in the affirmative].

The focus on resource use efficiency also usually goes along with silence on other issues. At Bonn, there was hardly any discussion about the polluting and resource intensive role of global capital in the traditional economy, about holding it accountable for cleaning up its act or about its contribution to the disenfranchisement of the poor. The private sector was seen as the source for funding, in the absence of public finance, but the question of how the private sector was to be regulated was not addressed in official proceedings.

In this, Bonn is not unusual. As several bloggers attending the ongoing climate conference in Durban point out at Occupy COP17, industrialized countries continue to urge those who question market mechanisms to “trust the markets.” For example, a letter released yesterday in Durban, endorsed by over 163 organizations including IATP, drew attention to an attempt by the U.S., the UK and Japan to turn the Green Climate Fund—created to support people in developing countries, people who are the most affected by the climate crisis but are the least responsible for it—into a “Greedy Corporate Fund.” According to the Friends of the Earth International, "developed countries are trying to allow multinational corporations and financiers” to directly access Green Climate Fund financing, meant to help adaptation in the developing countries.

Also, while the conference stressed over and again the need for increasing the production of food and energy, and for ensuring water and energy security for the poor, there was little acknowledgement of the fact that today if too many women, men and children go to bed hungry, it is not due to problems with food production, but rather with food distribution.

What would be an alternative way of proceeding with the nexus approach or, if we want to retain the phrase, "green economy?" Perhaps we should begin, first, with this humble recognition: the nexus approach is best understood (and practiced) possibly by the over 1 billion people who do not have access to food and clean water, or the 2.5 billion who do not have access to sanitation or energy to meet their basic needs. The poorest billion actually uses resources most efficiently. But this is a different kind of efficiency from that involved in the green economy. Here, efficiency springs from a recognition of the human and ecosystem interdependence and indeed inseparability of what we for functional purposes separate out as three domains.

Second, building on this, we should adhere to the full implications of what the Bonn conference called for, without giving that call any substance or teeth: “putting people and their basic human rights at the center of the nexus—especially women, who make important choices and decisions regarding water, energy, and food for household consumption,” is necessary to make the nexus approach work. To put people and their basic rights at the center of the nexus would mean listening to them, starting out from their perspective, rather than assuming that "we" have the solutions which we need to give to them.

Third, those of us in societies and states that consume far beyond our share of the earth’s resources surely need to improve our resource use efficiency, but that must begin with the questioning of our consumption patterns themselves, rather than seeking more efficient ways to continue with the same consumption patterns.

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