AIDA member Renee Martin-Nagle reports on the Water-Energy-Food Nexus Conference held in Bonn, 16-18 November 2011

From November 16 through November 18, 2011, the German government, through its ministries BMZ and BMU, hosted a conference in Bonn to explore the interrelationships among water, energy and food and to determine challenges and solutions deriving from this nexus.  In the view of the German government, solving the issues arising from the water-energy-food nexus is at the heart of any credible proposal to achieve sustainability, and this conference was convened to highlight and develop the concept prior to Rio+20.  The invitation-only gathering featured over 500 participants from around the world representing governments, NGOs, academia and industry, and for the first time the water, energy and food sectors were brought together to engage in dialogue and brainstorming.  With Chancellor Angela Merkel as patron and HRH Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands and H.E. Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, as keynoters, the conference benefitted from stellar speakers and well-informed participants. 

The ministries, with assistance from their conference partners, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the World Economic Forum and the World Wildlife Fund, organized the proceedings in a manner that would provide education, foster dialogue and inspire solutions.  The first day was dedicated to explaining the nexus connections and interactions.  The second day explored solutions through a mix of plenaries, discussions of hot topics and descriptions of projects that are already implementing nexus solutions.  The third day was an analysis of the enabling environment that must be created to attain realization of the nexus approach, as well as a call to action for participants to take the nexus concept to Rio in June 2012.  The full program, as well as many of the presentations and papers, can be found at

Once the connections among water, energy and food are identified, the interactions among them become obvious, and the complexity of the problems becomes quickly apparent. Water is used in the energy production process for extraction, mining, processing, refining, and residue disposal of fossil fuels, as well as for growing feedstock for biofuels and for generating electricity.  Conversely, energy is needed for extracting, transporting, distributing and treating water.  Similarly, water and food have a symbiotic relationship, as food cannot be grown without water, and plants and ecosystems provide a natural filtration function for water and are crucial to the hydrologic cycle.  Agriculture affects both the water and energy sectors, because it is responsible for 70% of the global fresh water withdrawals, and the full food production and supply chain uses 30% of the global energy output.  With the population expected to increase to 8 billion by 2030 and 9 billion by 2050, the demands for water, energy and food will increase substantially, and consideration of trade-offs will become more important and more common.  The conference organizers were adamant in insisting that any nexus solutions must be derived in accordance with three guiding principles.  First, access to water, energy and food for everyone must be accelerated, and the bottom billion must be integrated into the delivery stream.  Secondly, with the population growing exponentially and resources becoming limited, the world must learn to create more with less through elimination of waste and implementation of better technology.  Finally, ecosystem services must be sustained through investment and protective measures.

Throughout the conference, in nearly every discussion and presentation, speaker after speaker stated clearly that arriving at an integrated nexus approach will not be possible without the proper frameworks, policies and incentives, all of which require the involvement of lawyers.  If the nexus approach is to succeed – as it must for our global well-being – then the lawyers will have to be mobilized to design, draft and implement policies and their accompanying regulations.  The water sector plays a critical role, since water is at the fulcrum of both the energy and agriculture sectors.  The expertise of water lawyers, particularly those with an international practice and perspective, will provide a vital component to any change in the status quo, particularly a change that will overhaul old paradigms.  Fortunately, everyone at this groundbreaking conference recognized the importance of involving lawyers and policymakers at every step of the transition to the nexus approach, and, just as fortunately, the community of water law experts is up to the task.