From state to system: Financialization and the water-energy-food-climate nexus (by Jeremy J. Schmidt & Nathanial Matthews)

Since the 2008 financial crisis, one of the most significant shifts in global water governance has been the rise of the water-energy-foodclimate nexus (hereafter: nexus). In 2009, Ban Ki-moon focused attention on the nexus when, as Secretary General of the United Nations, he asked the global financial community to prioritize water security at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos (UN Water, 2009). Two years later, the World Economic Forum (2011a) delivered its report. Entitled Water Security: The Water-Energy-Food-Climate Nexus, the report argued that water, energy, food, and climate crises are linked to the structural mismanagement of water across the global economy. This article examines the role of global financial networks in articulating and positioning the nexus astride UN agendas. Indeed, by 2017, UN publications noted the “most commonly discussed set of interactions” regarding the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) lie “…in the nexus between food, water and energy, as reflected in the links between SDG 2 [food], SDG 6 [water] and SDG 7 [energy], with potential conflict in water use for energy production and generating hydropower with residential and industrial water use and for irrigation for food production” (Nikolova et al., 2017: 15). This article argues the nexus helped pivot global water governance discourse from state-oriented development models to the governance of globally interconnected economic and environmental systems. It proceeds in three steps to theorize, situate, and explicate the shift from ‘state to system’ in global water governance: First, it reviews how the nexus has typically been understood—as a frame for integrating water security and governance at multiple scales and across sectors. Neither nexus discourse nor its critiques, however, have attended to the deterritorializing role of global financial networks in articulating the concept. To address these concerns, we position our methodological approach towards the nexus in reference to the financialization of nature—the processes by which the material and energetic throughput of the Earth system are drafted into processes of capital accumulation wherein financial profits are proportionally greater than those of industrial production. Second, the article situates the nexus with respect to how it realigned previous sustainable development programs, notably Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM). Third, the article explicates how global financial networks retooled—at times rejected—IWRM as the nexus took shape. Analyzing key publications on global water finance from the World Bank and the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Reports, the article shows how financial technologies shape the kinds of connections that are to be governed and secured as development agendas are re-scaled from state-centered modes of industrial production to financialized systems of accumulation. One caveat: the analysis prioritizes water even though other nexuses (i.e. food-energy) are also important (see Field and Michalak, 2015). As becomes evident, the rationale for emphasizing water is its foundational role in notions of the nexus (Allan et al., 2015).

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