COP22 - From Desalination to Solar Energy Farming: The ‘Nexus’ in Action

Wednesday 21 December 2016


nexus - Morocco is among the most water-stressed countries in the world, and climate change, combined with social, economic and political factors, is creating an ever-more dire situation. Without urgent action, the country may soon be unable to provide enough water for all the needs of households, industry and agriculture.

The country’s challenges – and ambitions – were in the spotlight last month, when it hosted the Marrakech Climate Change Conference (COP22). Morocco has made adaptation to climate change a cornerstone of its future development, and its nationally determined contribution under the Paris Agreement includes a pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 42% below business-as usual levels by 2030. A massive investment in renewable energy, to provide more than 50% of electricity generation capacity by 2030, is central to that vision.

All these factors make Morocco a prime testing ground for a “nexus” approach, says SEI Senior Research Fellow Holger Hoff, a water resources and adaptation expert who has worked with Moroccan officials for several years, with support from GIZ, the German development cooperation agency.

The central idea of the “nexus” is that water, energy and food are inextricably connected, so in order to manage them effectively, we need to understand the linkages and identify potential trade-offs and synergies among them. The goal is not to end up with a single “Nexus Ministry”, but to foster dialogue, coordination and collaboration across key agencies.

Holger Hoff speaks at the COP22 side-event. Since 2011, when Hoff authored a seminal paper on the nexus for a conference sponsored by the German government, scores of nexus studies have been conducted around the world. Yet the concept remains mostly untested in practice. So at COP22, SEI and several partners organized a side-event to discuss how to operationalize the nexus approach for integrated climate adaptation and mitigation in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

The purpose was to identify entry points for putting the theory into practice and stage the cross-pollination necessary to jump-start implementation. “Only if you start looking across sectors can you start building synergies and harvesting potential co-benefits,” says Hoff, who is leading a project funded by GIZ on how to mainstream the nexus concept into institutions in the MENA region.

A nexus approach can minimize the negative externalities and trade-offs that can accompany a purely sectoral approach to food, energy and water security, and create more win-win situations. For example, the Green Morocco Plan (Plan Maroc Vert), a strategy to intensify agricultural production, could sharply increase energy and water demand. A nexus approach would seek to ensure that the plan does not undermine Morocco’s climate mitigation or adaptation goals – for instance, by proposing to meet the new energy demand with renewables.

But putting the nexus into practice has turned out to be difficult. Not only does it add complexity to resource governance and management – it also meets resistance from established sectoral power structures. As SEI Senior Research Fellow Richard Klein put it at the event: “Everyone talks about coordination, but nobody wants to be coordinated.”

“Institutions and policies are mostly oriented along conventional areas of expertise,” adds Hoff. “So while there is widespread recognition of the value of a nexus approach, its feasibility is yet to be demonstrated.”

Speakers at the event also highlighted the need for additional funding, innovative technologies, and capacity-building.

Nonetheless, Hoff thinks the MENA region is a “hot candidate” for piloting nexus operationalization. Morocco is not alone in the extremes it faces under climate change, and implementing the nexus approach in the region could have co-benefits for not just environmental sustainability, but also human security and political stability.

“We're not suggesting a paradigm shift, but rather to see where the nexus approach can add value,” says Hoff. In his view, the way forward is to mainstream the concept into existing frameworks and practices and find those entry points where co-benefits abound.

Mariam El Forgani (right), of the Regional Center for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency, presents RCREEE work at the COP22 event.

An exemplary entry point for implementing nexus is seawater desalination, a key measure to combat water scarcity and adapt to climate change in Morocco and other MENA countries. Currently, the technology relies on massive amounts of fossil fuels, which could weaken the region’s climate mitigation efforts and, potentially, also its energy security.

A nexus approach could make desalination a more viable strategy in the long run. By transitioning desalination to run on sustainable and affordable renewable energy, the region could not only meet both its water and energy needs, it would also be taking steps to increase its climate resilience and mitigate further warming.

According to Hoff, mainstreaming the nexus will also entail highlighting existing examples of successful operationalization, such as a Jordan-based project to convert farmland from water-intensive crops to solar energy harvesting. In addition, he says, it is important to build the relationships and trust necessary to form networks of nexus practitioners, and feed those networks with scientific information to bolster and improve their work.

To this end, SEI has been working to open the door for putting the nexus theory into practice. It has pioneered scientific assessments of the benefits of nexus to climate mitigation and adaptation and uses its water and energy planning tools, individually and together, in cooperation with stakeholders to develop scenarios that apply a nexus approach and test different integrated development options.

One more need highlighted by both Klein and Hoff at the side-event is for “champions” who believe in the nexus approach and help drive it forward.

“There will be no rapid progress, but I see our network of champions growing,” says Hoff. “It will be important to work with them to build these bridges.”