Critical thinking, integrated analysis and awareness raising on Sustainable Development Goals and a post-2015 development agenda

Connecting the dots: Can a ‘nexus’ approach help produce better SDGs?

Mon, 2014-03-10 15:00
Nina Weitz

Research Associate, Stockholm Environment Institute 



Måns Nilsson, Deputy Director and Director of Research, SEI



Marion Davis, Communications Manager, SEI’s U.S. Centre



A "nexus" approach to addressing water, energy and food security may prove a useful model for developing the SDGs.

The world has made great strides in reducing poverty and improving living conditions since the Millennium Development Goals were set two decades ago. Now, with the Sustainable Development Goals, ambitions are even higher: Not only do world leaders want to keep fighting poverty, hunger and disease, but they want to ensure human prosperity and well-being for the long term. This means engaging all countries – rich and poor – in the quest for a more socially and environmentally sustainable future.

Given the SDGs’ broad mandate, it’s not surprising that while the MDGs comprised eight goals, the Open Working Group on SDGs has identified 19 focal areas: not just “basics” such as poverty eradication, food security, energy, and water and sanitation, but also higher-level goals such as decent work for all, equality, sustainable consumption and production, peaceful societies and capable institutions.

The list highlights the wide range of social, cultural, economic and political conditions needed to enable sustainable development. It also makes it clear that even the richest countries need to do better. But logistically, it poses a daunting challenge. In the MDGs, each goal is supported by targets identified by experts in that particular field: water, education, health, etc. But with little dialogue across sectors, efforts to achieve the MDGs have sometimes worked at cross-purposes, or competed over resources. Still, early SDGs proposals have followed the same sector-by-sector pattern. Without a better approach, and with 19 focal areas, the SDGs risk becoming a tangled wish list of goals and targets that no one can fully make sense of.

There is another way, and it is gaining momentum in the SDGs talks, driven in part by the Government of Colombia’s proposed “Integrating Approach”. Rather than come up with separate sets of targets in each focal area, the idea is to organize cross-sectoral dialogues to come up with targets “from the bottom up”, thinking in terms of development priorities. Participants can then identify shared interests and examine interactions between targets: Do they compete for the same resources? Do they support or depend on one another? Does one impose constraints on the other? Are additional targets needed to ensure equitable access to resources, and efficient and sustainable resource use?

In February, in preparation for an IRF retreat, we examined how an integrated approach could work in the context of water, energy and food-related targets, using the “nexus” framework as a guide. A growing body of research shows that water, energy and food security are closely interrelated, and SEI and others are using the nexus approach to address development and resource-use challenges around the world.

We started by simply reviewing the water-, energy- and food-related targets identified in four SDG proposals, and marking the ones that might be relevant, or connected, to targets in the other two areas. For example, ensuring safe water quality also relates to food security; similarly, recycling or treating all municipal wastewater would require energy. We found most targets were linked to other sectors.

Second, we examined the nature of cross-sectoral interactions. Some targets are interdependent; for example, increasing access to irrigation requires a steady supply of freshwater. Other targets impose conditions or constraints on others; for example, the target for efficient agricultural water use sets a condition for how access to irrigation can be provided. Some targets reinforce each other, highlighting potential synergies; for example, increasing water efficiency in agriculture could boost agricultural productivity. Finally, critical trade-offs and conflicts may occur – for instance, when food and energy production compete for the same water resource, and the expansion of one impedes the other.

Our third level of analysis focused on resources and conditions as enablers of development. For example, energy is needed for water pumping, and water is needed for both hydropower and thermal power production. Similarly, agricultural production depends on energy and water. And water, energy and food, in turn, are enablers for social sectors. Energy is also crucial to the attainment of both health and education targets, for example: to provide electricity for clinics and schools, and light at home to do homework. Similarly, clean water and sanitation services are also essential to achieving health targets.

The IRF retreat made it clear that there is broad support for an integrated SDGs framework, but also that it is seen as a huge and difficult task. We were pleased to hear that the nexus approach helped participants start making a “mental map” of the linkages. Still, more work will be needed to fully understand those linkages – and their implications: Should the existence of a trade-off or synergy affect whether a target is included or excluded in the SDGs? Should targets that are linked to many other targets be given priority? These are questions that will require not only deeper research and analysis, but also value judgements.

If the SDGs are to succeed, they need to be coherent, consistent and well integrated. A nexus approach alone cannot accomplish that, but it may provide a helpful start. We will keep developing our analysis, and look forward to a lively and productive debate on SDGs integration.

Read the SEI discussion brief: Cross-sectoral integration in the Sustainable Development Goals: a nexus approach.

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