Water-Energy-Food Nexus in Africa: A Path to Sustainable Development

Southern Africa's journey towards sustainable growth and resilience is intricately tied to how it manages and balances the interconnected demands of water, energy, and food resources to promote regional integration.

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Energy efficiency
Cross-sectoral enabler
Capacity building and training

This piece was developed together with Belynda Petrie, CEO of One World - South Africa, one of the speakers of the "Webinar  #1: Collaborative RD&D for Water-Food-Energy Nexus".The webinar is part of the Developing endogenous capacity of climate technology through collaborative RD&D webinar series organized by the CTCN. The recording of this webinar is available here

Access to clean water, stable energy sources, and nutritious food is essential for the growth and development of communities. Yet, in numerous African regions, providing and having access to these resources remain a challenge to overcome. Regionally, more than 8.5 million people continue to experience water shortages affecting agricultural and energy-related activities. According to the World Bank's assessment, energy generation in Africa can be as much as ten times more water-intensive than in other regions, which significantly contributes to the prevailing power crises across the continent.

Southern Africa's journey towards sustainable growth and resilience is intricately tied to how it manages and balances the interconnected demands of water, energy, and food resources to promote regional integration.

Amidst the wave of urbanization and physical and socioeconomic vulnerabilities, Africa's rural communities remain substantial, underlining the complex demographic dynamics at play. Notably, almost 60 per cent of select regions of the continent is currently experiencing urbanization, catching up on the world's highest rate of Asia.

Due to population growth, urbanization, and the rise of the middle class, the demand for food, water, and energy in Africa is projected to increase significantly by 2030. And the Nexus is vital in meeting these demands. Innovative solutions like PV shading, precision irrigation, and cold storage are emerging for farmers. These advances can revolutionize operations, enhancing efficiency and success.

The extent of cooperative governance and intersectoral collaboration is also substantial, paralleled by the imperative for cross-boundary intergovernmental governance at an international level.

The Nexus holds significance for regional cooperation and security. It is particularly crucial in mitigating regional vulnerabilities stemming from population growth and climate change impacts, among other factors.

For these reasons, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) applies the Nexus as foundational to the regional strategic action plan for water. This plan is among the SADC policy suite that recognizes water, energy, and food security as the key elements for reducing poverty and sustaining development. These plans and policies position integrated planning as a strategy for regional cooperation, to simultaneously meet water, energy, and food security targets, and to improve natural resource use efficiencies in the region.  

Ultimately, the Nexus must be domesticated at the national level and collaboration is important for finding solutions and filling gaps. In Zambia, SADC is collaborating with the national Ministry of Energy, and the Ministry of Agriculture on a WEF Nexus demonstration project. The project seeks to showcase the Nexus approach as a viable strategy for responding to climate change. The combination of solar-powered drip irrigation with climate-smart agriculture and gender equity is intended to increase food production and security in the Southern Province. A similar approach is being implemented in Malawi.

The results and targets in the region also depend on how much electricity and how much water is needed for the sector. In South Africa the energy transition is driven by decarbonization while in other parts of the region, it is driven by increasing access to electricity, amplifying the demand for electricity up to 270 percent.

A robust institutional framework is essential for implementing Nexus approaches and achieving positive socio-economic outcomes. Cross-sectorally integrated policies and institutional arrangements are key elements of this framework, while ongoing monitoring and evaluation will guide future redesign and implementation.

Global initiatives provide us with some answers, too. We need more water and energy for food across the world. The Water and Energy for Food imitative supports innovative integrated and innovative projects globally, targeting 30 innovators across the Water and Energy for Food Nexus and ultimately reaching 1,000,000 smallholder farmers, including 250,000 women.

Lastly, Nexus becomes a very important trade mechanism, profoundly impacting the sustainability of food, water, and energy systems. As trade diminishes the necessity for exclusive reliance on domestic supply, it can effectively decrease local water and fertilizer usage in nations where these resources are relatively limited. Across Africa, 90% of agriculture is rainfed and 40% of food production is lost before it reaches the market. Smallholder agriculture productivity is further compromised by low access to other inputs such as fertilizer and extension services needed to promote climate resilience. The urgency for solutions based on strong and innovative governance has never been greater.

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