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Issue paper

Groundwater governance and the water-energy-food nexus in action: a global review of policy and practice. SOLAW 21 Technical background report

The dominance of insular, supply-side technocratic thinking has posed a major challenge to improving water governance in the face of mounting resource scarcity, which has itself been accentuated by climate change. During the 1990s, global discourse moved from supply-driven sectoral interventions to more holistic approaches to water governance as part of larger socioeconomic and environmental processes. Integrated water resources management (IWRM) emphasized demand-side water management and used prices, participation, entitlements, laws and regulations to strengthen water governance at hydrological rather than territorial units. More recently, there have been pleas for more integrative approaches that link land, water, energy, food, livelihoods, the environment and other spheres – each with its own, often insular, governance structure.


The evolution in global thinking reflects the need to meet growing human needs by innovating approaches that enhance resilience and the sustainability of landscapes, the biosphere and the Earth as a whole. To this end, the water–energy–food (WEF) nexus advocates that society is better off seeking system-level balance rather than maximizing sectoral objectives. The nexus approach has produced prolific analytical literature over the past decade but integrating it into policy and governance faces many challenges.

This review paper explores these challenges by focusing on the WEF nexus in action. We compare the nexus in several water-stressed areas of the world including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, China, Bangladesh and Gujarat (India), with additional evidence drawn from other places such as Morocco and Punjab-Haryana. We synthesize these case studies to examine the actual state of play in different locations and tease out practical lessons for mainstreaming nexus thinking in water policy and governance. The key conclusion is that specific contexts, contingencies and constituencies drive national and sub-national policies. Directing the outcomes towards the optimal nexus depends on the nature of the state, investment in institution building and, above all, ingenuity in policy design and implementation to overcome resistance to change and strengthen political capital for the leaders who back such policies.

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