STEPS-JNU SYMPOSIUM: Nexus narratives – water politics in Asia


By Ian Scoones, Co-Director, STEPS Centre

The fourth panel at the STEPS-JNU Symposium focused on the highly contested narratives around how water is stored and accessed in Asia, with cases from Nepal, Laos, and Thailand. As Uttam Sinha from The Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi, commented, Asia is facing a “hydrological moment” that is redefining the politics of water and the relations between nation states in the region. New connections between epistemic and policy communities with a regional basis are being forged that suggest a fundamental rethinking of transboundary and riparian policy and politics.

It is in this context that the STEPS project team has set about interrogating and unpacking the increasingly popular idea of the resource ‘nexus’. The intersection of food, water and energy has been popularised in policy discourse, as a focus for intervention in recent years. In the region and internationally the nexus discourse has been building over time to reach fever pitch. As Jeremy Allouche from the STEPS Centre observed, this is accompanied by metaphors such as the ‘perfect storm’, as well as operational frames such as the ‘green economy’. This is very much associated with international donor-led efforts and increasingly framing research. As Carl Middleton from Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand, pondered, is the nexus idea in fact just a rediscovery of what communities already knew? Why is it only now that such integrative ideas are becoming central to a mainstream narrative? Is this the moment that experts emerge from their silos, as they realise that sustainability questions are highly complex?

However, how ideas around the food-water-energy nexus play out is highly dependent on the national and regional political context and is deeply influenced by framing and interest politics, as the case studies showed. In the Laos Mekong case, a detailed analysis of policy documents across different institutions showed how framings of scarcity, security and nexus intersections differ. Carl showed how the Asian Development Bank highlighted economic and physical scarcity and therefore prioritised infrastructure interventions, particularly by the private sector. This contrasted with the International Water Management Institute that highlighted local production practices, and solutions were connected global and local projects, while conservation organisations such as IUCN focused on natural resource scarcity and the need for protection measures. While adopting the nexus discourse, very different perspectives on what is scarce, what needs to be secured, and what to do about it are shown.

The session asked is ‘the nexus’ a useful concept? Currently, as the cases showed vividly, the framing is very top down, often linked to external interests, and outsider-generated managerial solutions. In addition, in identifying a particular crisis at the nexus, a space for appropriation is opened up, often linked to a partial enclosure of previously shared, regional commons (a form of ‘green grabbing’). Investment imperatives linked to notions of food, energy, or water ‘security’ drive such appropriations by the private sector, supported by national political interests. As Jayanta Bandyopadhyay, formerly Indian Institute of Management Calcutta (IIMC), Kolkata, pointed out such a politics of knowledge has dominated by investment intervention and engineering design results in formerly public goods being captured and sold, resulting in an adaptation of a popular saying: “Rivers should flow uninterrupted, but only through my tunnels”.

As Dipak Gyawali, Nepal Academy of Science and Technology, former Minister of Water Resources, Nepal, pointed out this has resulted in a contested regional politics between ‘landlord’ countries and the ‘battery’ countries that supply the water. As he observed: “Age old questions are coming back to haunt us. Issues of security are being recast”. Whose security are we talking about? What is the most effective locus for resource governance? How do can multiple uses and users be accommodated? What institutions can respond? Is a river a source of energy for hydropower, food through fisheries or water for domestic use and agricultural irrigation? And who is responsible and accountable?

The challenge, as Dipak pointed out, is that each of the potential multiple institutions involved come with their own framings, different definitions of the problem, and particular histories and proclivities. There is, it was argued, a need for space for different providers to provide diverse options, and for negotiation between them across different groups. “The imagination of plural pathways can only become a reality if a diversity of users and their practices are involved”, as Lawrence Surendra, University of Mysore, observed. “Plural pathways and clumsy solutions” are needed, the panel contributors argued. Only a diversity of responses – “many ten percent solutions” – can, Dipak argued, can create pathways to sustainability more effectively and securely.