How the Water-Energy-Food ‘Nexus’ in Asia affects real lives

By Carl Middleton, Center for Social Development Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

Fisher at Khone falls

In Asia and globally, the water-energy-food nexus has received growing attention from policy makers, researchers, and practitioners. A key premise of ‘the nexus’ is that water use is interdependent with energy and food production. Thus, from a nexus viewpoint, the relationship between water, energy and food should be understood, and if demand increases in one, then trade-offs must be managed with the others.

The “Mekong Region and ASEAN in Transition” conference in September 2014 brought together researchers to discuss these trade-offs, and what they mean for economies and communities. 

Scrutinising the nexus

Whilst the nexus as a concept seems to be gaining momentum among experts, it is also subject to scrutiny.

For example, in many global narratives of the nexus to date, large-scale technologies of mass production for meeting food and energy demand are emphasized, together with market-based responses. In practice, however, this can also result in the redistribution of access to water and other natural resources away from local small-scale users of these resources.

Despite the potential for these redistributions to result in conflict, to date the nexus concept is yet to adequately address the issue of ‘nexus governance’ and issues of environmental justice within it.

In response to this and other emerging debates about the nexus in Asia, in September 2014 two panels were hosted at the “Mekong Region and ASEAN in Transition” conference at Ubon Ratchathani University, Thailand.

The first panel considered the role of the nexus from a regional perspective across Southeast Asia and beyond, whilst the second panel explored it from a local perspective and in the context of past large water infrastructure projects in Northeast Thailand. Both panels were filmed and can be viewed below.

Panel 1: From “Policy in Principle” to “Policy in Practice”

The first panel assessed what evidence there is that current resource policies in Asia are guided by nexus-approaches, and explored what the politics of resource allocation and use surrounding the nexus idea are.

(Watch on YouTube)

On the panel, Dr. Dipak Gyawali of the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology highlighted how food, water and energy are running in to each other’s’ limits in a relationship of what he called “entwined predicaments.” He also pointed out that whilst at the family-level, these resources have always and necessarily been nexused in order to survive, associated expert knowledge has become fragmented and siloed.

As a result, at scales above that of the family, the food, water and energy sectors have produced problems for each other. Dr. Gyawali explained that in part, there are institutional origins to this fragmentation, as government agencies responsible for food, water and energy seek to defend and expand their turf, and they have limited incentive for collaboration and integration despite some policy attempts to do so. In this regard, he described a “graveyard of integrated development” initiatives originating from the 1970s and 1980s, and asked whether the nexus will be able to do integration in a better way.

Dr. Jiragorn Gajasenj of Mae Fah Luang University argued that across Southeast Asia economic growth has dictated the development of society. Energy and water as commodities are privileged in policy making, and become related to issues of national security.

This has promoted policies and plans for large dam construction, including on the Mekong River’s mainstream, whilst food security is mainly considered from the perspective of project impacts. Dr. Gasajenj concluded that whilst water, food and energy security are increasingly integrated as an academic exercise, it has not yet translated into policy in principle or in practice. For the nexus to be taken up in practice, he concluded, everybody needs to be on-board and to trust each other.

A fisher in the Khone Falls area
A fisher in the Khone Falls area of Southern Laos, nearby to the location of the proposed Don Sahong dam on the Mekong River’s mainstream (Credit: Carl Middleton)

Mr. Suparerk Janprasart, a water governance specialist, reflected on how the nexus has shaped his recent work in practice. He observed that since 2010 there have been many meetings on the nexus, yet he questioned how the nexus built on or differentiated itself from earlier water integration, biodiversity and livelihood paradigms over the past four decades.

He also said it is important to ask whether the idea of security in the food, water and energy nexus refers to security of production for sale, or with a focus on meeting the needs of families more directly.

Dr. Carl Middleton of Chulalongkorn University highlighted how in Southeast Asia there is increasing integration of the region’s economy. At the same time, the region’s transboundary rivers are also integrated ecological systems. But they are becoming increasingly fragmented by the construction of large dams, often developed as power export projects under the regional economic integration policies.

He proposed that fragmented and uneven access to justice should be an important issue to address within the nexus. At present, whilst electricity and investment can flow easily across borders in Southeast Asia, responsibility and justice do not (see related project here).

Dr. Jeremy Allouche (STEPS Centre / Institute of Development Studies) started by pointing out that the idea of ‘trade-off’ is central to the nexus, and beneath this is the assumption that resources are scarce. He argued that this assumption in turn relates to the (brief) history of the nexus concept, which emerged from the global food and energy crisis of 2008. Yet within this narrative of the nexus are assumptions related to the issue of scale.

Dr. Allouche highlighted that whilst securing food and energy through large-scale projects is often promoted in nexus-thinking, they can at the same time undermine local food security and livelihoods. He concluded that the nexus concept should be re-framed towards a more local understanding that recognizes environmental and livelihood concerns.

Concluding the panel, the chair, Prof. Surichai Wun’gaeo of Chulalongkorn University, proposed that the nexus concept is also related to the issue of power-relations between different organizations and stakeholders, and asked whether the nexus concept is empowering or disempowering for local communities?

He highlighted that power need not only be understood as the power to command or control resources, but can also relate to the power to think and relate together. He asked whether the nexus concept could have the power to bring people together across borders and across professions so as to make sense of the emerging challenges together.

Panel 2: Grounding the nexus

The second panel asked what has been the policies and practices towards large hydropower and irrigation dams have been in northeast Thailand, who has paid the costs and who has benefited from these projects, and what lessons have been learned. The panel concluded by considering how water, energy and food needs can be better met, in particular from the perspective of rural communities.

(Watch on YouTube)

Since the 1960s, successive waves of plans for large-scale hydropower and irrigation dams have been proposed for Thailand’s northeast region. These partially fulfilled plans have been controversial given the impacts on rural livelihoods and the environment. The panel focused on two such projects built in the 1990s on the Mun River: the Rasi Salai irrigation dam and the Pak Mun hydropower scheme. In both cases, compensation has only been provided in part, and only after prolonged protests by affected communities.

Mae Sompong Wiangjan, a community leader from those affected by the Pak Mun project, explained that when the project was constructed, the community members were not consulted and were not aware of the plans. When they tried to oppose the project to protect the river and their fishing-based livelihoods, they were labeled as “rebels” by the project proponents.

She pointed out that studies have concluded that the value of electricity generated by the Pak Mun dam is worth less than the loss to villagers’ past fishing-based livelihoods. She reflected that nowadays, even as the project fully opens its gates for four months of the year to allow the river to flow, the past fishing-based livelihoods have “floated away with the currents.”

Meanwhile, if the remaining villagers want to pump water from the reservoir for agriculture, it would be too expensive to do so. Regarding the future, she emphasized the need for appropriate technologies such as digging small ponds for storing water close to where agricultural demand is, because then expensive pumping is not required.

She also highlighted that there are many energy alternatives available in Thailand instead of large dams, including solar, wind and biomass that can produce electricity locally in areas that need it, and that do not create negative impacts for the communities there. She argued that it cannot be considered sustainable development when a project affects many people, but only benefits some.

Mae Sompong hosts students
Mae Sompong and Por Paiboon recently hosted a field visit of students from Chulalongkorn University and shared their knowledge of forest products in the remaining wetland near the Rasi Salai Dam (Credit: Tim Jenkins)

Por Paiboon, a representative of the communities affected by the Rasi Salai dam, highlighted how the affected communities were misled during the initial construction of the project as to its true size and impact, and that the government did not look at what kind of water system would actually be useful to the community.

He explained that the wetlands flooded by the project were central to local livelihoods for rice production, cattle raising and collecting forest products such as herbs and sweet potatoes, and its loss created hardships for many in the community.

After years of protest, recently the community has negotiated a livelihood recovery program with the government, with initiatives including an organic market, a savings scheme, and a community learning center (see related project here).

In terms of lessons learned for the future, Paiboon emphasized that the state should conduct better studies prior to projects to avoid impacts, and that all information should be disclosed to the communities who could be affected. He also highlighted the need for public hearings so that community members can decide if they want a project or not, and as a space where they can propose the kinds of projects that could actually benefit the community.

Dr. Surasom Krisanajhutha of Ubon Ratchathani University agreed that the Pak Mun and Rasi Salai dams had created problems for the communities, both of which were built at a time in the early 1990s when there was limited opportunity for public consultation in Thailand.

At Rasi Salai, the relationship between the community and the government has since changed because communities are now more aware of their rights. There are now more avenues for negotiation, and when the Royal Irrigation Department (RID) makes a mistake operating the dam, they even apologize to affected communities – which would not have happened in the past. He said that whether to continue to operate the Rasi Salai Dam or not should depend on whether the RID can do a better job in managing the water than the villagers, who in the past could manage the water without the dam.

The failed fish pass structure
The failed fish pass structure built at the Pak Mun Dam (Credit: Carl Middleton)

Dr. Kanokwan Manorom of Ubon Ratchathani University said that to understand the construction of water infrastructure projects and its relationship with affected communities, it is important to recognize the character of the organization that operates it and the commodity produced.

Thailand’s electricity utility, which operates the Pak Mun project, is actually a semi-state-owned and semi-private organization, and produces electricity as a commodity. It benefits from the sale of this electricity, whilst the cost is borne by communities who lost their fisheries and thus their income.

Early studies planning the project did not even acknowledge these fishing-based livelihoods. Dr. Manorom said that if any benefit can be said to have come from the Pak Mun dam, it is that the community was able to build a strong social movement to address the project, and that the project made apparent for Thailand, the wider region and even the world the impacts that large dam projects can create and thus the need for environmental and social safeguards, public participation, and respect for human rights.

Dr. Naruemon Thabchumpon of Chulalongkorn University, who chaired the panel, in reflecting on the panel’s main messages highlighted that there has been a tendency to think that human beings can fix everything with engineering, including the impacts of past large dams, for example by building fish passes. However, in the case of the Pak Mun and Rasi Salai dams this engineering-led approach has failed. Despite this, new and unanticipated challenges such as climate change are still being approached with an engineering mindset.

Rethinking the nexus

The two panels revealed that there are many ways of approaching and understanding the nexus, both in terms of defining problems and identifying solutions.

But addressing nexus-type trade-offs between water, food, and energy is not simply a technical concern, but is also fundamentally a social one. In this regard, there are still challenges to overcome.

For example, the two panels identified that there is still a need to acknowledge the multiple viewpoints on food, water and energy problems and solutions, especially from local resource users’ perspectives. Beyond this, there is a need for decision-making towards these resources to be more participatory, fairer and inclusive.

Thus, at a fundamental level, if the nexus concept is to have relevance to resource governance and use in Southeast Asia, it must inevitably engage with the politics of natural resources use.


The author appreciates the generous support of the “Dams, Securitisation, Risks and the Global Water-Energy Nexus Under Climate Change Scenarios” project (KN/11015) of the Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability (STEPS) Centre, ESRC-funded centre in organizing the panel.