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Supporting stakeholders to anticipate and respond to risks in a Mekong River water-energy-food nexus

Louise Gallagher, Institute for Environmental Sciences, University of Geneva, Switzerland
Birgit Kopainsky, System Dynamics Group, Department of Geography, University of Bergen, Norway
Andrea M. Bassi, KnowlEdge Srl, Olgiate Olona, Italy; Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa
Andrea Betancourt, Formerly affiliated with Luc Hoffmann Institute, IUCN Conservation Centre, Gland, Switzerland
Chanmeta Buth, WWF Cambodia, Kratie, Cambodia
Puthearath Chan, General Secretariat of the National Council for Sustainable Development, Ministry of Environment, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Simon Costanzo, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, Cambridge, USA
Sarah St. George Freeman, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA
Chandet Horm, WWF Cambodia, Kratie, Cambodia
Sandab Khim, General Secretariat of the National Council for Sustainable Development, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Malyne Neang, ECOLAND Research Centre, Royal University of Agriculture, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Naroeun Rin, WWF Cambodia, Kratie, Cambodia
Ken Sereyrotha, Previously General Secretariat of the National Council for Sustainable Development, Phnom Penh, Royal Government of Cambodia
Kimchhin Sok, ECOLAND Research Centre, Royal University of Agriculture, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Chansopheaktra Sovann, Royal University of Phnom Penh, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Michele Thieme, World Wildlife Fund, Washington, D.C., USA
Karina Watkins, UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office; Formerly affiliated with WWF Cambodia
Carina A. Wyborn, Institute for Water Futures, Australian National University
Christian Bréthaut, Institute for Environmental Sciences, UNESCO Chair on Hydropolitics, University of Geneva, Switzerland


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The water-energy-food nexus concept is criticized as not yet fit for deeply integrated and contested governance agendas. One problem is how to achieve equitable risk governance and management where there is low consensus on priorities, poor inclusion and coordination of risk assessment procedures, and a weak emphasis placed on cross-scale and sectoral interactions over time. Participatory system dynamics modeling processes and analyses are promising approaches for such challenges but are currently underutilized in nexus research and policy. This paper shares our experience implementing one such analysis in the Mekong river basin, a paradigmatic example for international nexus research. Our transdisciplinary research design combined participatory causal loop diagramming processes, scenario modeling, and a new resilience analysis method to identify and test anticipated water-energy-food risks in Kratie and Stung Treng provinces in northeastern Cambodia. Our process generated new understanding of potential cross-sectoral and cross-level risks from major hydropower development in the region. The results showed expected trade-offs between national level infrastructure programs and local level food security, but also some new insights into the effects local population increases may have on local food production and consumption even before hydropower developments are built. The analysis shows the benefit of evaluating risks in the nexus at different system levels and over time because of how system dynamics and inflection points are taken into account. Additionally, our case illustrates the contribution participatory system-thinking processes can make to risk assessment procedures for complex systems transitions. We originally anticipated that any new capacity reported by partners and participants would come from our modeling results produced at the end of the process. However, participants in the modeling procedures also found the experience powerful the information sharing, rapid risk assessment, and personal learning it enabled. A lesson from our experience reinforces a message from the transdisciplinary research field that has not yet been absorbed into the nexus research and policy field wholeheartedly: we do not have to wait for perfect data and incontestable results before making a positive contribution to anticipating and responding to risks that emerge from nexus relations if we apply participatory and systems-thinking informed approaches.

Key words

Cambodia; Mekong; participatory research; resilience; risk; scenario analysis; system dynamics modeling; water-energy-food nexus

Copyright © 2020 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087