What role do citizens play in the Water-Energy-Food nexus?

Loulou Leupe

28 March 2022

Different actors are involved in WEF nexus synergies. Citizens not only have a major impact on the sustainability of the environment, but also suffer from issues such as water scarcity, limited food resource access, longer droughts periods, and lack of energy security. What role do citizens have in the Water-Energy-Food nexus?

Expectations are too high

Interesting question. I think that citizens play a crucial role, both as 'problem owner' (in the end, they are the ones affected as Loulou already mentioned). However, we should be realistic about what citizens can do. I sometimes feel that we (scientists and policy makers) expect too much of citizens. For example, in the energy transition at neighborhood and household level, we expect individual citizens to find information, make decisions about sustainable heating and energy use as well as invest. In addition, citizen initiatives are encouraged a lot, while it is only a minority of citizens that actually wants to be involved as intensively.  Especially when you take into account that there are numerous topics where we appreciate bottom-up initiative: changing diets and consumer behavior (food); water use and climate change adaptation (water); and climate change mitigation and energy generation (energy).  

How to find a good balance?

The point you raise is an interesting and valid one. Indeed, many times we expect a lot from the public when sometimes a representative democracy might be preferred. However there are also numerous examples where a well balanced participatory approach has been succesfully engaging all stakeholders and creating support and even 'ownership' of projects or policies. At the end of the day, it might depend on finding the right balance. I invite others in this forum to share their experiences on this; have you been able to find a good balance in your projects and how did that work?

Citizens to strengthening resiliency in WEF-nexus institutions

We are all citizen, so how to specify which group to refer to more exactly. Sagoff (1988) explained that to act as a citizen implies considering values and views about what is the better thing to do for the community one belongs to, implying that a person focuses on what is considered to be important and right to do in this specific sense; including reflections on what is understood as a good society. Contrary, a stakeholder is somebody having a specific stake in a certain decision. Whereas stakeholders would lobby for their stakes, which could be strongly individual, the citizens would be more reflective. As such a deliberative dialogue is expected among citizens, whereas negotiations would be a suitable way to communicate stakes. When interacting about Water-Energy-Food, this would involve a lot of stakes in business developments and individual benefits and personal interests. While this often can be short term and lacking an overall plan, citizens’ participation is said to engender civic competence by building democratic skills, overcoming feelings of powerlessness and alienation, and contributing to the legitimacy of the political system (Fiorino, 1990). If this is true, I would highly recommend citizens to play an important role to strengthening the resiliency of Water-Energy-Food nexus institutional systems by citizens taking part in dialogues, research, policy formulation and implementation of favorable solutions aiming for the SDGs.