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Many of this year’s Stockholm World Water Week water and food security discussions centered on a new concept: the water-food-energy (WFE) nexus.

A new term is rapidly increasing in prominence in the world of agricultural water research: the water-food-energy (WFE) nexus. This year’s Stockholm World Water Week focal theme was ‘food and water security’ and the WFE nexus seemed to feature prominently in almost every discussion.

What is the WFE nexus? For many, the concept is not immediately revealed by the name. Put simply, however, the WFE nexus is an acknowledgement of that fact that achieving water and food security is in fact closely linked to energy security. It is a framework for sustainability that emphasizes the inter-connectedness of the water, food and energy sectors.

It is apparent from World Water Week discussions that the WFE nexus is a term that will soon embed itself in the research-for-development dialogues. Certainly, the nexus is useful for ‘high-level’ development discussions, but how does it apply on a smaller scale?

One presentation at Stockholm provided a clear case for the importance of incorporating the WFE nexus at a local scale. In her presentation “Innovations in managing the agriculture-groundwater-energy nexus—Evidence from three states in India”, Aditi Mukherji, a senior researcher at the International Water Management Institute and leader of the CPWF Ganges 3 project, provided a clear case for a nexus approach.

Since the 1970s, India’s land area under groundwater irrigation has increased, as have the number of wells and tubewells. These pumps are operated with electricity, which is largely subsidized by states. As a result, farmers’ groundwater use is higher than sustainable recharge of aquifers, creating a nexus where the agricultural sector is dependent on unsustainable trends in the groundwater and electricity sectors.

While direct regulation of groundwater use is not a feasible option given the large number of pumps, Indian states have attempted to regulate water use through regulation of the electricity supply that is used to operate the pumps. Different states have chosen to implement power sector reforms differently; most states have avoided metering of agricultural tubewells, with the exceptions of the states of West Bengal and Uttarakhand, which have no large farm lobbies to oppose such an action.

These variations in energy-side interventions demonstrate some clear lessons for farmers’ groundwater use in Indian states, and therefore for their WFE nexus. The states of West Bengal, Punjab and Karnataka each took a different approach to managing the water-food-energy nexus, with distinctly different results.

The path each state took depended heavily on each state’s political will and overall governance. One key insight that emerged from Aditi’s presentation was the relevance of negotiation and political trends for the WFE nexus. It would serve the research-for-development community well to make sure that politics and governance are accounted for in future WFE nexus discussions.

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