- Top of page
- Judith Rees's 2013 Presidential Address
- Notes of the AGM
In her first address as President of the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers), Judith Rees highlights the potential role of geography in nexus thinking. Her comments are followed by a summary of the Society's 2013 Annual General Meeting, including reflections on 2012 activities.
Judith Rees's 2013 Presidential Address
- Top of page
- Judith Rees's 2013 Presidential Address
- Notes of the AGM
On becoming President, I recognised only too well that Michael Palin would be a tough act to follow. I couldn't even attempt to fill his Timberlands and certainly could not follow his last Presidential Address on geographical journeys where his love of travel and the diversity of landscapes and cultures shone through so brightly. However, one section of his address struck a chord and started me thinking about what the theme of my own contribution should be. He argued that the ‘Society has never had a more important role to play’ and that ‘we must be resolute and united in defending the discipline that we care so much about’.
The Society has, of course, been very active in such defence not only in debates about the National Curriculum, but also in its extensive work with schools and the wider public to spread an enthusiasm about geography. Just three weeks ago we had an inspiring example of one element of this work when young people involved in the Learning and Leading programme spoke so eloquently about their experiences. This programme, which is particularly focused on young people from less advantaged backgrounds, aims to enhance aspiration and academic achievement and is clearly achieving these aims. It was moving to hear how the programme had changed life chances, given them confidence in their own abilities and a determination to pursue fulfilling and hitherto only dreamed of careers.
We need to continue this defence by doing even more to create the demand for geography by giving students of all ages a thirst for geographical experiences and knowledge. Additionally, we also have to create demand by demonstrating to policy and decisionmakers in the public and private sectors the contribution that geographical methods and ways of thinking can make to addressing some of the key challenges faced by the world today. The Society has been active in this area, perhaps most obviously through its flagship engagement series 21st Century Challenges. But, we need to do more and today we have an ideal opportunity to do so through greater involvement in the research and political dialogue surrounding the resource security nexus and its role in sustainable and equitable development. Importantly, this opportunity has the potential to engage researchers from across our discipline and to foster cross-disciplinary research with colleagues in the natural, physical and social sciences.
The nexus concept recognises the complex inter-relationships between water, energy and food (WEF) security and some researchers and policymakers add, rightly in my view, ecosystem services into the relationship mix. Given these inter-relationships, proponents of the nexus argue that segmented sectorial planning and decisionmaking is likely to lead to unsustainable development pathways, inefficiencies in the development and use of scarce resources and to gross inequalities in resource allocations. Thus there is a need to promote greater coordination between inter-linked resource producing and consuming sectors, recognise the consequences of decisions made in one sector for the other sectors and accept that tough trade-off decisions will be increasingly necessary when using and allocating scarce resources.
Basically, the nexus approach aims to create a decisionmaking framework which identifies cross-sectorial impacts (externalities and unintended consequences), explores feasible trade-offs and helps policymakers achieve greater policy coherence as efforts are made to move towards development pathways which are resource efficient, equitable and sustainable. The approach can be applied at all levels of governance from the local to the international, but it does imply major changes in institutional frameworks and in the way policy and decisionmaking occurs. This will not be a trivial task as people will need to operate outside the comfort of their sectorial, jurisdictional, spatial and organisational silos to take account of the complex sets of inter-relationships between resource usage and between the socioeconomic and political systems which drive demands and determine who benefits from resource allocations.
There is, of course, nothing new in the identification of linkages between water, food, energy and ecosystems. The impact of subsidised energy prices for irrigated agriculture on the demand for water has been documented for years. More recently, the implications of biofuel developments for food and water security have been all too evident, as have the effects of shale gas extraction on water demands and water quality. However, what is relatively new is the view that these impacts are not just isolated cases but are endemic in the way we manage our economies and the resources base on which we all depend. Also relatively new is the widespread political acceptance that we are probably reaching crisis points as economic growth, population growth, urbanisation and changing patterns of food consumption put increasing pressure on scarce resources (Hoff 2011). Such pressures are likely to be exacerbated by climate change and the loss or degradation of ecosystem services. Business as usual appears increasingly untenable when projections imply that agricultural production would have to increase by 70% by 2050 and that primary energy demands are likely to increase by 50% by 2035 (Hoff 2011). It is not at all clear where the water and land resources are to come from to allow such supply increases, nor do we know what the implications would be for vulnerable ecosystems and the poorest, most marginalised communities if demands went unchecked. The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed the growing feeling of unease in his opening remarks to the 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos. ‘We have the economic crisis, the food crisis, the energy crisis. To these we can add climate change … They illustrate our world's vulnerability to the shock of diminishing resources’. He goes on to argue that water insecurity is connected to so many of the challenges the world faces in terms of development, peace and security.
The relationship between water, food and sustainable rural development has been on the international political radar for some time. Agenda 21 (United Nations 1992), for example, devoted a whole chapter to discussing how water and land resources could best be employed to serve social equity, economic development and environmental objectives. However, it was not until 2011 that broader nexus approaches, including energy and ecosystems, really gained political salience. In that year the World Economic Forum produced two documents addressing the issue, the very detailed Water Security Report and a chapter in the Global Risks report. The latter treated the risks associated with the WEF nexus alongside the financial risks of macroeconomic imbalances and the risks posed by corruption, organised crime, illicit trade and fragile states. It was argued that water, food and energy insecurity are chronic impediments to economic growth and social stability and that any strategy that focused on only one part of the nexus risked serious unintended consequences. In the same year, the German Government convened the Bonn 2011 Conference, The Water, Energy and Food Security Nexus – Solutions for the Green Economy, at which representatives of diverse stakeholder groups tried to improve our understanding of the critical linkages between the resources and importantly to consider the practicalities of providing the conditions and incentives for real change. Since then, hardly a month has gone by without some international nexus conference; the concept figured highly at the Rio+20 conference, and at a more practical level various local, usually multi-stakeholder, workshops have taken place to build collaborations, look at feasible institutional changes and the problems involved.
Talking about the nexus is fairly easy and the reasons why we need a more coherent, integrated approach to resource development and use are pretty compelling. However, the fact remains that we still have a limited understanding of how to implement such an approach and relatively little research has been published which provides much guidance to decisionmakers (Brazilian et al. 2011; IISD 2013). Numerous research questions remain largely unanswered. For example, we do not really know how best to promote coordination: are there effective incentive systems, what regulatory systems would be needed, are new organisations required such as high-level cross-cutting commissions, or multi-stakeholder fora? Nor do we have a good understanding of the barriers to implementation and the most effective ways to overcome them.
What we are sure about is that the answers to the myriad of questions will have a major geographical component. The type and importance of the linkages between the resources in the nexus will vary spatially as will the feasibility and acceptability of measures to reduce external costs and improve overall sustainability and resource use efficiency. Moreover, it will often be the case that changes at multiple spatial scales (community to international) will be needed to reduce resource insecurity, even if the problems manifest themselves at a relatively local level. National governments may well have to introduce a range of measures to facilitate, motivate and enable local actions and certainly will have to address those areas where policies are inconsistent and are driving unsustainable resource use. And actions at a global scale may also be needed whenever trade, transnational companies, donor agencies and international organisations are involved in resource use and allocation.
Although not plentiful, there are now some examples of efforts being made to implement nexus principles on the ground. Just to give you one brief example. At a recent African dialogue on the Water–Food–Energy Nexus held in Nairobi, Richard Fox, Sustainability Director of Finlays Horticulture Kenya Ltd, described the consequences of unsustainable watershed management not only on his company's flower export business but also on the livelihoods of local communities, both rural and urban, and on the ecosystem of Lake Naivasha. Efforts to rectify the problems are being coordinated, very much on nexus lines, by the Imarisha Lake Naivasha Management Board, with projects to restore the lake and its fishery, rehabilitate forests, improve agricultural and livestock practices, increase the use of renewable energy and promote water and soil conservation. While all this work is being done through multi-stakeholder collaborations at the lake basin level, it needed national level actions to establish the management board and its secretariat, provide support through the Inter-Ministerial Steering Committee, form a District Technical Committee, provide training, and to fund not only administrative activities but also some of the projects. Moreover, the scale and economic importance of flower exports from the basin brings in an international dimension. UK supermarkets are funding and supporting a range of activities, in effect making a payment to sustain the vital ecosystem services upon which the flower trade depends and efforts are being made to extend the payment system to the Dutch flower markets1.
While there are some notable exceptions (Allen et al. 2012; Bradshaw 2013), the geographical literature appears to be distinctly light on the use of or even the critical analysis of the nexus concept and resource security. This is somewhat surprising as the whole approach seems to be a gift to geographers trained to understand the inter-relationships between socioeconomic, cultural, environmental and political factors and how they interact over space. It is very clear that understanding how to improve resource security, encourage sustainable behaviours and shift economies and societies towards more sustainable development pathways will be a complex task. Certainly it is a task which cannot be accomplished through the lens of any single discipline but geography, both physical and human, must surely have a key role to play. The UK Research Councils are now expressing an interest in work on the nexus, for example in January the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) held a ‘Big Idea’ workshop which addressed the question of ‘what are the future social science challenges that cut across the Energy–Environment–Food Nexus?’ Perhaps this interest will encourage geographers from across the discipline to engage with work on the resource security nexus. I hope so because, if not, then others working in multi-disciplinary teams will certainly take over the space.