Water for Food

Celebrating World Water Day: Thinking Broadly, Acting Specifically

March 21, 2014

Roberto Lenton participated in an intergenerational dialog during World Water Week in Stockholm in September, 2013. Photo by Peter Tvärberg, SIWI.

Roberto Lenton participated in an intergenerational dialog during World Water Week in Stockholm in September, 2013. Photo by Peter Tvärberg, SIWI.

By Roberto Lenton, DWFI founding executive director

At World Water Week in Stockholm last September, I participated in a session designed to foster a dialog between senior and young professionals. I was, needless to say, in the “senior” category. We’d been tasked with discussing the water/food/energy “Nexus Approach” and were given a set of questions in advance. The lively conversation raised many interesting points. It also exposed a fundamental difference in thinking that helps illuminate a debate I’ve seen intensifying in development circles.

As World Water Day and its water and energy theme are celebrated around the world tomorrow, it is timely to reflect on ways to approach nexuses in ways that are practical and expansive, rather than restrictive.

Some in that Stockholm session seemed to view the “Nexus Approach,” in capitals, as a defined way to organize and frame problems and reach solutions. The image that came to mind was a roadmap or path leading to a food, water and energy secure world.

In contrast, some of us didn’t accept the proposed framework. Our view was broader. Our experience working at the interface of multitudes of connections made us mindful of the different viewpoints, disciplines and scales that must meld to create the future we want. Instead of a rigid Nexus roadmap focused on water, food and energy, we envisioned a broader approach recognizing many interconnections, shifting and changing as conditions warrant and new insights emerge.

During the discussion, it became clear that this broader take had sparked an expansion of thinking. While we need to applaud the idea of celebrating nexuses and focusing attention on interconnections, we should also worry that focusing too much attention on a specific Nexus Approach in capitals gives it too much power. We must have practical, not prescribed, solutions.

Narrowly defining issues is not new. Government agencies, ministries, interest groups and the like have long operated within rigidly defined boundaries. But neither is the idea that things are interconnected. Most groundwater irrigation farmers are all too aware of the nexus between their water costs and their energy costs.

Opening yourself to the array of possibilities can be overwhelming. The innumerable interconnections among water, energy, food, health, policy, the environment, climate, culture, social welfare, history, economics and politics, to name a few, and all operating on scales ranging from the local to the global, is a daunting prospect.

The key – to borrow the environmental movement’s mantra – is to think broadly, act specifically.

Examples of specific acts abound. Just as important, though less tangible, is the need to think broadly and flexibly to inform the specific projects that change lives.

If creatively designed, institutions can provide important forums for the expansive thinking that create a shared vision and form interconnections among disparate groups. That work lays the foundation for acting specifically. Two examples of pioneering institutions that do just that come to mind.

More than 40 years ago, Nebraska created natural resources districts to conserve and protect the state’s natural resources. Arranged around watersheds and locally governed, NRDs have the flexibility to engage all stakeholders and to maneuver in ways that best serve the environment and communities. I have come to know these remarkable institutions first-hand since joining DWFI two years ago. The NRDs have successfully helped to conserve Nebraska’s portion of the nationally significant High Plains Aquifer. When extreme droughts hit, such as occurred in 2012, the water is there to save crops and livelihoods.

At a broader level, the Global Water Partnership, with which I was closely involved during its initial formative years, has grown into an extensive, worldwide network of governmental and non-governmental agencies, private sector groups, research institutes and others operating at different scales, from local to global. GWP brings together relevant stakeholders for the coordinated, strategic thinking and planning that lead to sustainable water management solutions and projects at all levels.

These examples highlight the vital role that flexible, creative institutions can play in expanding thinking and forming connections. Indeed, my most rewarding work has come from being involved in developing these types of institutions, from helping the International Water Management Institute get off the ground in the 1980s and 1990s to my current role as DWFI’s founding director. I’m motivated by the long-term impact achievable from working in that expansive space where so many different realms interconnect and where so many innovative solutions can be found.

On World Water Day, I celebrate the tremendous progress already achieved. Today, the challenges are growing even more complex. But I’m encouraged by my young colleagues in Stockholm and so many others who are embracing the larger possibilities we have yet to explore to achieve the future we want.

Roberto Lenton, a leading global expert in water and development, joined DWFI as its founding executive director in 2012.

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