Emerging Water-Energy-Food Nexus Lessons, Experiences, and Opportunities in Southern Africa

Tafadzwanashe Mabhaudhi, Sylvester Mpandeli, Luxon Nhamo, Vimbayi G. P. Chimonyo, Aidan Senzanje, Dhesigen Naidoo, Stanley Liphadzi, and Albert T. Modi


The water-energy-food (WEF) nexus is a systems approach that improves resource management, use, and distribution, managing cross-sectoral synergies and trade-offs in a holistic way (Albrecht et al., 2018). This systems approach has become part of the modern development norm as sectoral approaches are now viewed as unsustainable (Mpandeli et al., 2018; Terrapon-Pfaff et al., 2018). The popularity of the approach is motivated by the increasing demand of depleting resources perpetuated by increasing demand from a growing population, uneven distribution of resources, and high climatic variability and change (Nhamo et al., 2019b). Consequently, the WEF nexus now forms part of a global research agenda aimed at sustainable development, systems thinking, and transdisciplinary research (Nhamo et al., 2019b). Formal published evidence of the three-way mutual interactions among the WEF nexus components only started emerging in 2008 (Hellegers et al., 2008). The approach then shot into prominence at the World Economic Forum held in Bonn in 2011 where it was promoted as a tool to achieve and manage sustainable economic development and has since grown into an important global research agenda (Scott et al., 2015).

As a polycentric approach, the WEF nexus is used either as an analytical tool, a conceptual framework, and a discourse or as part of a decision support system (DSS). As an analytical tool, the nexus systematically uses quantitative and qualitative methods to understand the interactions among WEF resources (Nhamo et al., 2019b). As a conceptual framework it leverages an understanding of WEF linkages to promote coherence in policy making and enhances sustainability to promote cross-sectoral approaches (Nhamo et al., 2019b). As a discourse it is a tool for problem framing and promoting cross-sectoral collaboration, and as a DSS it is used to inform resource planning and management decisions (Nhamo et al., 2019b). These WEF nexus niches augur well with the transboundary nature and uneven distribution of resources in southern Africa. For southern Africa, the approach has potential to enhance climate change adaptation and adaptive capacity, promote regional integration, build resilience, and improve the livelihoods of people (Mpandeli et al., 2018; Nhamo et al., 2018). The WEF nexus approach is a pathway for understanding complex and dynamic interlinkages between issues related to water, energy and food security, it is strongly linked to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly SDGs 2 (zero hunger), 6 (clean water and sanitation), and 7 (affordable and clean energy) (Mabhaudhi et al., 2018a).

Despite the reported value of the WEF nexus approach, it has remained as a rhetoric ambition without proper implementation, monitoring, and evaluation guidelines to direct policy and decision making (Leek et al., 2015; Rees, 2013). A substantial amount of literature has been published highlighting the importance of the WEF nexus as a conceptual framework and as a discourse but evidently lacking robust analytical tools (Liu et al., 2017; Nhamo et al., 2018; Terrapon-Pfaff et al., 2018). Critics of the WEF nexus base their arguments on the failure of the approach to offer real-world solutions and become a fully fledged operational framework (Terrapon- Pfaff et al., 2018). The approach has lacked tools to evaluate synergies and trade-offs in an integrated way and provide decision support tools to inform policy making and implementation across the WEF sectors (Howells et al., 2013; Liu et al., 2017). It is only recently when analytical tools have been developed to look into the three resources in a holistic way (Nhamo et al., 2019b). Previous tools lacked the main attributes of a nexus analytical framework because most remained either theoretical or still maintained a sectoral approach to resource development, use, and management (Albrecht et al., 2018; McGrane et al., 2018).

As research interest around the WEF nexus has been evolved, regional and national WEF nexus consortiums have been formed within the framework of multistakeholder dialogues to look into developing analytical tools (Daher et al., 2018). The most outstanding of these consortiums are (i) the WEF Nexus Group formed by international organizations and universities at the World Water Week in Stockholm in 2016 (http://wefnexusgroup.org/wwf8); (ii) the Nexus Network a grouping of mainly international universities was formed in 2014 to support WEF nexus transdis- ciplinary research and to create meaningful links between communities of researchers, policy makers, business leaders, and practitioners (https://thenexusnetwork. org); and (iii) the Nexus Platform, formed in 2011 as an independent information and facilitating platform funded by the Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development and the European Union (www.water-energy-food.org/nexus-plat- form-the-water-energy-food-nexus). These high-level global platforms signify how the WEF nexus agenda has attracted global attention as a pathway for sustainable development.

Within southern Africa, the approach has also gathered a lot of interest as evidenced by the increasing availability of literature on WEF nexus dedicated to the region (Mabhaudhi et al., 2016; Mabhaudhi et al., 2018b; Mpandeli et ah, 2018; Nhamo et ah, 2018). At the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), the SADC Secretariat has been spearheading WEF nexus research through the Global Water Partnership (GWP) since the 6th Multi-stakeholder Water Dialogue held in Lusaka, Zambia in 2013, which focused on the WEF sector linkages (Mabhaudhi et ah, 2018a). There is a lot of WEF nexus research going on in the region being spearheaded by watercourse commissions such as Limpopo River Basin Watercourse Commission (LIMCOM) and the Zambezi River Basin Watercourse Commission (ZAMCOM), as well as universities and research organizations. The SADC Secretariat has produced the WEF Nexus Action Plan through the Regional Strategic Action Plan (RSAP) on Integrated Water Resources Development and Management (SADC, 2016) that recognizes the role of the nexus in adapting to the challenges posed by population growth and climate variability and change, as well as in optimizing resource use. The WEF Nexus Action Plan is a regionwide WEF nexus operational framework aimed to support the attainment of regional goals and targets that include regional integration, poverty alleviation, and improve the livelihoods of people. The adoption of the WEF nexus approach in southern Africa is precipitated by the need to ensure simultaneous securities of WEF resources, a topical issue that has dominated the development agenda of southern African, centered on improving livelihoods, building resilience, and regional integration (Cervigni et al., 2015; Davidson et al., 2003).

This chapter provides an overview of progress on the WEF nexus, giving a focus on southern Africa, assessing regional water, energy and food resources, exploring opportunities for the nexus in promoting cross-sectoral policy harmonization and development of sustainable climate change adaptation strategies, as well as linking the WEF nexus to related SDGs. The chapter discusses regional resource endowment, policy and institutional arrangements, and proposes a governance framework for WEF nexus adoption. The challenge of resource scarcity is of particular concern in southern Africa due to dependence on climate-sensitive sectors of agriculture and energy, which heavily depend on water resources. For the region, the WEF nexus approach has potential to integrate strategies aimed at adapting to the challenges brought about by population growth, increased urbanization, increased consumption demands because of improved standards of living, and climate variability and change.


Sixty percent of the population of the SADC region live in rural areas and depend on natural systems for their livelihoods as well as relying on rainfed agriculture (Mabhaudhi et al., 2018a; Nhamo et ah, 2019c). Most of the rural inhabitants lack access to clean energy, water, and sanitation and are faced with food insecurity (Mabhaudhi et ah, 2016; Nhamo, 2015). The underdevelopment and increasing vulnerabilities of the region are caused, in part, by sectoral approaches in resource development, use, and management (Nhamo et ah, 2018) The “silo” approach in resource management practiced at national level inadvertently contributes to the region’s failure to meet its development targets. The essence of the WEF nexus is its capability to address the challenge of sectoral management of resources through the harmonization of institutions and policies, as well as setting targets and indicators to implement and assess resource management for sustainable development. For the SADC region, the WEF nexus presents opportunities for integrated resource management for regional integration and inclusive socioeconomic development and security, mainly because resources are generally transboundary in nature (Mabhaudhi et ah, 2016). In the SADC, the WEF nexus could be valuable when it comes to promoting inclusive development and transforming vulnerabilities into resilient communities.

The resource rich fifteen transboundary river basins (IRBs) in the SADC region (Figure 7.1) present opportunities for coordinated and sustained growth and ensure socioeconomic security through the WEF nexus. Riparian countries could achieve short- and long-term benefits through an integrated and coordinated operation of existing and planned hydropower facilities, cooperative flood management, and irrigation development (Mabhaudhi et ah, 2016). According to the World Bank, cooperation among riparian countries of the Zambezi Basin has the potential to bring reasonable balance between hydropower and irrigation investment that could result in stable energy generation of some 30,000 Gigawatt hours (GWh)/year and unlock 774,000 ha of irrigated land (The World Bank, 2010). Currently, most large dams in the region are underused because they were originally designed for single purposes. However, some like the Itezhi-Tezhi Dam in Zambia, are being redesigned for multipurpose to be used for both hydropower and irrigation (Deines et ah, 2013). The Kariba Dam was also originally commissioned only for hydropower generation but is now used for aquaculture, urban water supply, tourism, support to national parks and wildlife, lake transportation, and mining activities (Nyikahadzoi et ah, 2017).

Evidently, such scenarios create new economic opportunities that promote inclusive growth, job creation, and sustainable development. However, these are only a few cases that highlight WEF nexus synergies. Adopting and implementing the WEF nexus at the regional level in the SADC will minimize conflict and unnecessary tension among member states and allow inclusive development and investment, as the nexus promote cross-sectoral policy linkages. As the WEF nexus components are sensitive to climate variability and change, its adoption also promotes resiliencebuilding initiatives and would contribute to the region’s climate change response strategies. Thus, the nexus unlocks opportunities for collaboration, boosting regional cooperation, and inclusive development through a set of common targets.

Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) countries in Africa and the transboundary river basins within the regional economic block

FIGURE 7.1 Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) countries in Africa and the transboundary river basins within the regional economic block.

Resource Endowment in Southern Africa

Rainfall in the SADC region is highly variable, oscillating between 100 and 2,500 mm per annum, and this is indicative of the uneven distribution of hydrological resources across the region. Seventy-five percent of the region is arid or water scarce (physical and economic) (Nhamo et al., 2019a). Total renewable freshwater resources are estimated at 2,300 km3 per annum of which 7% of water withdrawals is used in agriculture, 16% for domestic and 8% for industrial use (Nhamo, 2015). Although agriculture uses the bulk of freshwater resources, crop production remains very low' failing to meet food requirements of a growing population (Mpandeli et al., 2018). Seventy percent of surface w'ater resources are in fifteen transboundary river basins (Figure 7.1). The hydrology of the SADC is, thus characterized by the high number of transboundary river basins (Nhamo et al., 2018), highlighting the importance of watercourses in promoting regional integration and development. Although the southern parts are arid, the Congo, Zambezi and Orange-Senqu basins have the potential to generate significant regional benefits through water transfer and hydropower generation (Stiles and Murove, 2015).

The SADC region is endowed with vast, but underused energy resources, although availability varies from country to country (Stiles and Murove, 2015). The untapped potential of hydropower generation in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, and Zambia has capacity to supply the whole region with electricity (Stiles and Murove, 2015; The World Bank, 2010). However, the main source of energy within the region is biomass as only 24% of the total population and 5% of rural people have access to electricity (Schreiner and Baleta, 2015). Just like water resources, the distribution of energy resources has potential to play an important role in regional integration, inclusive economic development, and poverty eradication (Nhamo et al., 2018). The region currently shares power grids whose electricity is generated from shared watercourses. Regional hydropower potential is estimated at about 1,080 terawatt hours per year (TWh/year), but the current level of exploitation is less than 31 TWh/year (Stiles and Murove, 2015).

At almost 9.9 million km2, the SADC region’s land area is almost a third of the total land mass of the African continent (SADC, 2012). Of this total, 25% is arable, and farming occurs only on 6% of the area (Mabhaudhi et al., 2018b). This in reality means the SADC region has potential for agricultural production and achieving food security at both the national and regional levels. Regrettably, unequal land distribution in the SADC region is a challenge that militates against this potential. This means land reform in the SADC is imperative if agricultural production and rural development are to be realized. However, due to a cautious approach predicated on political, social, and economic considerations, land reform has been woefully slow in the region. Agriculture is the main catalyst for regional economic development as more than 60% of inhabitants depend on it for their livelihoods, providing their subsistence, employment, and income (Mabhaudhi et al., 2018b). The performance of the agriculture sector, therefore significantly impacts on economic growth, poverty reduction, and food security as the sector accounts for close to 17% of the region’s gross domestic product (GDP), and the contribution increases to more than 28% when middle income countries are excluded (SADC, 2014a). Despite its importance to regional economic growth, agricultural growth rates remain very low and highly variable averaging only 2.6% per annum. This falls below the regional target of 7% per annum. Agriculture growth rates have almost been at par with population growth rates of 2.4% (Chilonda and Minde, 2007) resulting in food insecurity. Current annual performance of the sector has been insufficient to significantly contribute to regional economic growth and address food and nutrition security issues in the region. Dependence on rainfall for agriculture increases the vulnerability of the region to the vagaries of extreme climatic events, high climate variability, and change. Yet, land with irrigation potential is approximately 20 million ha, of which only 3.9 million ha is equipped for irrigation, accounting for about 6.6% of cultivated area (SADC, 2015).

Regional Institutions and Policies Related to the WEF Nexus

The SADC Secretariat has formulated legal frameworks for the region that can provide the political will to implement the WEF nexus. There are institutions and policies in place to oversee and direct water, energy, and agriculture resources, but they still relate to each sector. There is, therefore, need to harmonize policies in the region and embrace the cross-sectoral approach of the WEF nexus. The SADC treaty is the overarching framework for the region, whose objective is to achieve economic development, peace and security, and growth and also to alleviate poverty and improve the livelihoods of the people, all of which are achieved through regional integration (SADC, 2011). To date, the region has ratified the following nexus-related institutions and policies:

  • 1. The Regional Strategic Action Plan IV (RSAP IV) (SADC, 2015) is based on the SADC Water Policy and Strategy that aims to achieve an equitable and sustainable utilization of water for social and environmental justice, regional integration, and economic benefit for present and future generations, emphasizing infrastructure development and water resource management for food security in the water-food nexus.
  • 2. The SADC protocol on shared watercourses (SADC, 2000) fosters closer cooperation for judicious, sustainable, and coordinated management, protection, and use of shared watercourses, and advancement of SADC’s agenda of regional integration and poverty alleviation.
  • 3. The Southern African Power Pool (SAPP) is a grouping that was established in 1995 guided by the Protocol on Energy (SADC, 1996), which highlights the development and updating of a regional electricity master plan, and the development and use of electricity in an environmentally sound manner, while emphasizing the need for universal access to affordable and quality services. The mandate of the SAPP is to enhance regional cooperation in power development and trade and to provide nonbinding regional master plans to guide electricity generation and transmission infrastructure delivery.
  • 4. The SADC Regional Agricultural Policy (RAP) (SADC, 2014b) envisages integrated approaches on water resources management and emphasizes the importance of improving agriculture performance to meet the food and water security, as well as attaining sustainable economic development objectives at a regional level. The RAP oversees the upgrading and expansion of water infrastructure for agriculture, data collection for dams, irrigated areas, and irrigation management.
  • 5. The WEF Nexus Action Plan recognizes the role of the nexus in adapting to the challenges posed by population growth and climate variability and change, as well as in optimizing resource use to achieve regional goals and targets.
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