The origins of the “nexus”: a water governance concern

10 December 2018
Zora Kovacic

The “nexus” has become a buzzword (Cairns & Krzywoszynska, 2016), used in many different contexts for many different purposes. It indicates the interlinked nature of resource management, and is used as an inclusive tool to address environmental, climatic and land use issues. The most popular formulation of the nexus refers to “water, energy and food”, but the term is used with reference to a broad range of topics. In this article, we trace back the emergence of the term “nexus” and ask: what did the concept mean to achieve?  The term “nexus” hails from the water community, and although it may be seen as a means to articulate concerns and policy priorities of actors involved in water governance, we also show that the term was used in many different ways from the onset.

The term “nexus” was put forward by the '2030 Water Resources Group', which was founded in 2008 and brought together companies from the food and beverage industry, including the likes of the Barilla Group, Coca-Cola Company, Nestlé, SABMiller, PepsiCo, New Holland Agriculture, Standard Chartered Bank and Syngenta AG (Leese and Meisch, 2015). The idea of a “water-energy  nexus” was mainstreamed through the Bonn2011 conference organized by the World Economic Forum Water Initiative. In its early formulations, the nexus was tied to business concerns of a variety of corporations, whose interests ranged from securing access to water resources, to using water resources “efficiently”. Shaped in this way, the nexus has been presented as a means to ensure economic growth that is compatible with resource availability, which Leese and Meisch link to the green growth agenda.

The nexus has also received considerable attention from modellers. Shannak and colleagues (2018) provide an overview of the models that analyse the nexus, and find that most modelling efforts are centred on water. Such models include: the Water Evaluation and Planning Model (WEAP); the Global Policy Dialogue Model developed by the International Water Management Institute; the “water energy and food security nexus” developed by Hoff (2011), which is centred on water availability; the Climate, Land, Energy and Water Strategies (CLEWS) that estimates the suitability of different crops and biofuels under rain-fed and irrigated conditions for current and future climates; the “Diagnostic tool for investment in water for agriculture and energy” developed by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. Water is often an “invisible” input needed to produce other goods, such as food, or used in production processes that require cooling, washing, etc. The “virtual water” approach also highlights the importance of taking into account water uses embedded in other products. For this reason, modelling the nexus can be seen as a useful tool to give visibility to water use.

Also with regard to public policy at the European level, the term “nexus” can be found in the realm of water governance. For instance, the MAGIC project responds to the call “WATER-2b-2015 - Integrated approaches to food security, low-carbon energy, sustainable water management and climate change mitigation” which asks proposals to “develop a better scientific understanding of the land-water-energy-climate nexus” (

The term “nexus” has emerged in policy and academic parlance as recently as the early 2010s, and it has been a buzzword almost from the onset.  The term does not necessarily lack definitional clarity. Rather,  it is associated with many definitions and used in many contexts. Some see the nexus as yet another rehearsal of older debates about interdisciplinary research, questioning the novelty of the idea. We suggest that the popularity of the term may in some ways help meet the aim of rendering water use more visible, and mainstreaming resource management in business practices. At the same time, the term “nexus” may acquire a life of its own, becoming a new problem in need of governing, requiring new metrics and models, and new institutional arrangements that make it possible to work “across silos”. As the nexus becomes an issue in its own right, it may or may not be a good ally to water governance.


Cairns, R., & Krzywoszynska, A. (2016). Anatomy of a buzzword: The emergence of ‘the water-energy-food nexus’ in UK natural resource debates. Environmental Science & Policy, 64, 164-170.

Leese, M., & Meisch, S. (2015). Securitising sustainability? Questioning the'water, energy and food-security nexus'. Water Alternatives, 8(1).

Shannak, S., Mabrey, D., & Vittorio, M. (2018). Moving From Theory to Practice in the Water-Energy-Food Nexus: An Evaluation of Existing Models and Frameworks. Water-Energy Nexus, April 2018.