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Understanding the changing water-energy-food nexus along an altitude gradient in Nepal

Prof Lindsay Stringer (SEE), Dr Martin Dallimer (SEE)

Project partner(s): Dr Moti Rijal (Central Department of Geology, Tribhuvan University, Nepal)

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Water, energy and food are interdependent resources. To produce food, water and energy are needed; ensuring water is in the places in which it is needed to grow food and of the necessary quality requires energy; while energy production requires water (Bazilian et al., 2011). The ways in which one of these components is distributed and managed affects the other two components (Figure 1). Managing this nexus demands decision-making that operates across water, energy and food sectors (FAO, 2014).

Figure 1: Dynamic relationship among the food, water and energy sectors (Source: Rasul 2016: p15)

With just 3% of the world's land, South Asia hosts a quarter of the world's population (1.6 billion people). The region is home to around 40% of the world's poor, with approximately 51% of the population living with insufficient food and energy (Ahmed et al., 2007). Much of South Asia is mountainous, with its population highly dependent on the natural resource base for their livelihoods. Ensuring food security, providing access to modern energy and safe drinking water for all remains a key challenge in advancing the region’s sustainable development, particularly in the context of a rapidly growing population, limited land, unreliable and inadequate energy supplies and increasing water stress due to extraction and climate change.

The ways in which land is managed in upstream, high altitude parts of the region, have a profound impact on the delivery of ecosystem services to support livelihoods and water-energy-food security in lower altitude locations (Rasul, 2016). Communities living at different points along an altitude gradient therefore experience and manage the water-energy-food nexus in different ways, depending on environmental management decisions made in other parts of the system, likely resulting in a complex pattern of interactions and feedbacks between communities and ecosystems along the extreme altitudinal gradients present in the region. Although policymakers are now starting to recognize the need to work across water-energy-food sectors in their decision-making, they often fail to take an explicitly spatial approach to understanding the nexus. This has knock-on effects for the key development challenges in the region, and people’s abilities to manage environmental change (Rasul, 2016).

This project focuses specifically on Nepal as a case study. Characterised by extreme altitudinal variation within a very short lateral distance (Figure 2), Nepal itself is heavily dependent on water to generate energy (from hydropower), irrigate crops as well as for standard domestic and industrial uses. As the climate changes and human populations expand, water shortages for power and food production are becoming more acute. However the extent to which water is required for irrigating crops, power generation (or both) varies spatially.

For instance, the low altitude Terai region is the “food basket” of Nepal. Water is not used for power generation, but is required for irrigation. As the human population increases, ground and river water sources are coming under pressure and food production is decreasing. Conversely, in the mid-altitude Mahabharat Range, rivers are harnessed for hydropower. As their flow rate decreases, power is becoming increasingly scarce, especially during the dry, winter season. Finally, rivers in the Higher Himalaya region tend to be snow-fed, but have a similar trend of decreasing discharge. Nepal, therefore, provides a dynamic context within which to characterise the role of environmental change in shifting the relative importance of water, energy and food within the nexus and the strengths of the feedbacks among them, both within a single region and across multiple regions.

Figure 2: profile of the Himalaya through east Nepal and position of physiographic regions (generated from the SRTM DEM; Source: Dhital, 2015: p26)


This project takes a systems approach and aims to unravel the biophysical and socio-economic relationships that shape the water-energy-food nexus in three different locations along an altitude gradient in Nepal (Figure 2), exploring the implications for sustainable development and communities’ abilities to manage environmental change across a range of different spatial scales. Although nascent research is emerging on the water-energy-food nexus in the Himalayas (e.g. Rasul and Sharma 2016; Rasul 2014), it largely draws on secondary data and does not consider community perspectives, a gap which this project will aim to fill.

According to the interests and expertise of the student the project could involve approaches such as:

  1. Carrying out an integrated land-use change assessment (e.g. Dallimer et al. 2009; 2015; Stringer and Harris 2014) through time using satellite imagery from the mid-1980s to the present day. This could include understanding the impacts of a rapidly expanding human population, the drying of water sources/availability, urbanisation and rural-urban migration on food, water and energy availability and their interdependence;
  2. Mapping and analysing livelihoods and ecosystem service relations and vulnerabilities using a food-water-energy framing along the altitude gradient;
  3. Establishing links between ecosystem functions underpinning the provision of food, water and energy and the abundance and resilience of those ecosystem services;
  4. Ecosystem service valuation, potentially using both monetary and non-monetary approaches both for the present day, and through time (e.g. Favretto et al. 2016);
  5. Quantifying and modelling feedbacks between water-energy-food management decisions at different altitudes (e.g. Fleskens et al., 2014);
  6. Participatory scenario development and environmental management decision-making exercises (e.g. Reed et al., 2011; Stringer et al., 2014).

Potential for high impact outcome

Managing the water-energy-food nexus in the context of human population growth, land-use and climate change and natural hazards (geological, hydrological and climatic) is a critical challenge, particularly for poor communities in developing countries. The research topic has relevance for both environmental management and poverty alleviation/development policy audiences in Nepal and the wider South Asia region, as well as for donor countries such as the UK. We expect the student to generate several research papers for submission to high impact, interdisciplinary journals and to deliver other outputs as appropriate in formats relevant to non-academic audiences (briefing notes, blog posts) that can enhance the policy uptake and societal impact of the findings.     


The student will work primarily under the supervision of Prof. Lindsay Stringer and Dr. Martin Dallimer within the Sustainability Research Institute’s Environment and Development research group. Co-supervision and field support in Nepal will be provided by Dr Moti Rijal at Tribhuvan University. We anticipate that the student would spend 6-9 months undertaking primary data collection in Nepal following a successful transfer viva.

This project provides interdisciplinary training in: (i) environmental systems, nexus and livelihoods approaches; (ii) use and application of GIS and remote sensing; (iii) qualitative social science methods; and (iv) ecosystem service assessment. The PhD student will have access to a range of different Faculty training opportunities, including workshops on participatory research methods, GIS, SPSS and the use of other research methods and analysis methods, as well as non-technical training sessions on managing your supervisors, and preparing for your viva. A training needs assessment undertaken at the start of the PhD will ensure that opportunities are tailored to the student’s specific requirements. 

Student profile

The student should have a strong interest in systems approaches, sustainability and interdisciplinarity, a solid background in an environmental discipline (environmental sciences, geography, sustainability science), experience in applying both qualitative and quantitative research and analysis methods and ideally some familiarity with GIS and remote sensing. The student must be prepared to travel to remote mountainous locations and spend time collecting primary data in Nepal.


Ahmed AU, Hill RV, Smith LC, Wiesmann DM, Frankenberger T, Gulati K, Quabili W, Yohannes Y, 2007. The World's Most Deprived: Characteristics and Causes of Extreme Poverty and Hunger. IFPRI, Washington, DC.

Antwi-Agyei P, Fraser EDG, Dougill AJ, Stringer LC, Simelton E, 2012. Mapping Food System Vulnerability to Drought Using Rainfall, Yield and Socioeconomic Data for Ghana, Applied Geography, 32, 324-334.

Bazilian M, Rogner H, Howells M, Hermann S, Rent D, Gielen D, Steduto P, Mueller A, Komor P, Tol RSJ, Yumkella KK. 2011. Considering the energy, water and food nexus: Towards an integrated modelling approach. Energy Policy, 39(12), pp.7896-7906.

Dallimer M, Davies ZG, Diaz-Porras DF, Irvine KN, Warren PH, Maltby LM, Armsworth PR, Gaston KJ. 2015. Historical influences on the current provision of multiple ecosystem services: is there a legacy of past land cover? Global Environmental Change, 31, 307-317

Dallimer M, Tinch D, Acs S, Hanley N, Southall HR, Gaston KJ, Armsworth PR. 2009. 100 years of change: examining agriculture, habitat change and stakeholder perceptions through the twentieth century. Journal of Applied Ecology, 46, 334-343

Dhital MR, 2015 Geology of the Nepal Himalaya: Regional perspective of the classic collided Orogen. Springer International Publishing, Switzerland. ISBN 978-3-319-02495-0

FAO 2014. The Water-Energy-Food Nexus: A new approach in support of food security and sustainable agriculture. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, Rome.

Favretto N, Stringer LC, Dougill AJ, Dallimer M, Perkins J, Reed M, Atlhopheng J, Mulale K. 2016. Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis to identify dryland ecosystem service trade-offs under different rangeland land uses. Ecosystem Services, 17, 142-151.

Fleskens L, Nainggolan D, Stringer LC 2014.  An exploration of scenarios to support sustainable land management using integrated environmental socio-economic models, Environmental Management, 54, 1005-1021.

Rasul G. 2014. Food, water, and energy security in South Asia: a nexus perspective from the Hindu Kush Himalayan region. Environmental Science and Policy 39, 35–48.

Rasul G. 2016. Managing the food, water, and energy nexus for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals in South Asia. Environmental Development 18, 14–25.

Rasul G, Sharma B, 2016. The nexus approach to water–energy–food security: an option for adaptation to climate change, Climate Policy 16 (6), 282-702.

Reed MS, Kenter J, Bonn A, Broad K, Burt TP, Fazey IR, Fraser EDG, Hubacek K,  Nainggolan D, Quinn CH, Stringer LC, Ravera F. 2013. Participatory scenario development for environmental management: A methodological framework illustrated with experience from the UK uplands, Journal of Environmental Management, 128, 345-362.

Stringer LC, Harris A. 2014. Land degradation in Dolj County, southern Romania: environmental changes, impacts and responses, Land Degradation and Development, 25, 17-28.

Stringer LC, Fleskens L, Reed MS, de Vente J, Zengin M. 2014.  Participatory evaluation of monitoring and modeling of sustainable land management technologies in areas prone to land degradation, Environmental Management 54, 1022-1042.

Related undergraduate subjects:

  • Ecology
  • Environmental conservation
  • Environmental management
  • Environmental policy
  • Environmental science
  • Geography
  • Natural resource management
  • Remote sensing
  • Sustainability
  • Sustainability and environmental management
  • Water management