Water Research Commission (WRC) of South Africa

Compiled by: Prof Sylvester Mpandeli from Water Research Commission of South Africa, with contributions/inputs from Prof Tafadzwa Mabhaudhi from University of KwaZulu – Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa & Dr Luxon Nhamo from International Water Management Institute, Silverton, Pretoria

The water-energy-food (WEF) nexus is gaining recognition internationally as an intersectoral approach to resource management and sustainable development. The Water Research Commission (WRC) of South Africa has identified the WEF nexus as one of its focus “lighthouse” areas of research. This project was part of the WRC’s goal to promote the WEF nexus in South Africa. Since 2012, the WRC conducted several research studies focusing on the WEF nexus nationally and also in the Southern African region. The first study on WEF nexus was to assess the status of WEF nexus in South Africa. The aim of the study was to conduct a review of available information and knowledge about the Water – Energy – Food nexus in South Africa. Specifically, to conduct a state-of-the-art literature review on past, present and ongoing work on the WEF nexus focusing on current status, potential, challenges and opportunities for intersectoral WEF Nexus planning. In addition, to propose a framework for linking the WEF Nexus to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), paying emphasis on SDG 2, 6 and 7. Lastly, this would culminate in developing a draft research agenda to guide future research and develop on the WEF nexus for South Africa. The WRC with its key strategic partners have proposed WEF framework for South Africa (Figure 1). 

Figure 1. The proposed WEF framework for South Africa.

The research study managed to produced policy brief which were shared with several government departments which are water, energy, food (agriculture) activities. Much of the WEF nexus information that has been produced has a regional SADC focus. South Africa, however, has many opportunities to implement WEF nexus thinking in resource management. Solar power generation, water reuse and recycling, and precision agriculture are examples of opportunities that could contribute to intersectoral optimisation. For South Africa it is imperative that the WEF nexus approach be closely aligned with the SDGs, particularly to SDGs 2 (zero hunger), 6 (clean water and sanitation) and 7 (affordable and clean energy). 

Why WEF nexus is important for Southern African region?.

South African region is facing multi stress and these include: (a) Population increases, (b) threats posed by climate variability and change, (c) Political instability, (d) Incorrect agricultural practices, (e) Political instability, (f) Lack of policy harmonisation and coordination amongst countries in the region, (g) Pollution.

Why the WRC is focusing in the Southern African region?.

The SADC region is endowed with vast water, energy and food resources, but unevenly distributed. The northern part has vast water and energy resources but little agricultural land and lacks the expertise to fully utilise these resources. The southern parts of the region has the required expertise and vast agricultural land, but is generally water scarce. Resources in the SADC region are distributed in fifteen transboundary river basin. For example, the Zambezi River Basin is shared by eight countries regional countries, which would mean that all the eight countries rely on the waters of the Zambezi River for water, energy (hydropower being the major source of power) and irrigation. This setup in the distribution of resources in the SADC region requires a systems approach to holistically develop, utilise and manage these resources in an integrated manner to avoid conflicts and ensure water, energy and food security for sustainable development. One such approach is the water-energy-food (WEF) nexus, a multi-centric approach that provides decision makers with evidence to manage resources in an integrated manner, taking into consideration the synergies and trade-offs. 

The adoption of the WEF nexus in the SADC region would translate into savings as trade-offs and synergies are taken care of, and it plays an important role in preventing the duplication of activities. Such an approach would promote regional integration and help to eradicate poverty as premised in the SADC Treaty, and will go a long way in enhancing the achievement of the 2030 Global Agenda on Sustainable Development. 

The water component with the WEF nexus represents all freshwater resources (surface and groundwater). Although there is a lot that needs to be done in quantifying the available water resources in the SADC region, it is already playing a pivotal role in irrigation and water supply for some cities as surface water resources become unreliable due to extreme climatic events, high climatic variability and change. But still it needs to be managed in the framework of the WEF nexus .