The WEHAB (Water, Energy, Health, Agriculture, and Biodiversity) Elements in a Changing World: Developing the Nexus

Meeting photo

High-Level Expert Group Meeting

8 July 2016

Guiyang, China

On 8 July 2016, the InterAction Council of former Heads of State and Government convened a high-level expert group meeting on “The WEHAB (Water, Energy, Health, Agriculture, and Biodiversity) Elements in a Changing World: Developing the Nexus” in Guiyang, China in partnership with the Eco Forum Global 2016. The InterAction convened the meeting with a view to present recommendations to the G20 Summit taking place in Huangzhou, China in September 2016. The G20 hopes to move nations towards an “innovative, invigorated, interconnected, and inclusive world economy” and the deliberations of this meeting are intended aid to aid that process.

In 1950 Albert Einstein wrote:

A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

Completely unaware of what world leaders would posit with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, Transforming our World: 2030 Agenda in 2015, Einstein’s words more than 50 years later reflect the paradigm shift that is urgently needed today to address climate change, the water crisis, famine, and global health security. His “circle of compassion” illustrates a shift from the individual to the collective, and a shift from thinking of only what is nearest to us in time and space to thinking of nature as a whole, spanning generations.

In Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda states agreed to introduce 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that seek to eradicate poverty and inequality, guarantee equal and fair access to food, health, water, decent work, education, energy, peace and justice. The goals are all interrelated and linked to each other; each can only be achieved fully if all goals are met.

One Health Equals Planetary Health

Global health is undoubtedly a question of global and national security. States are not placing health at the forefront of their security agenda and are falling short on investing in preparedness for global health emergencies. Here, too, a paradigm shift is needed: from the economics and politics of response to the economics and politics of preparedness.

Preparedness requires building resilient health systems and infrastructure in accordance with the International Health Regulations, providing universal health systems, intensifying research, development and investment in virus and therapeutics for dangerous pathogens without licensed human vaccines, and publicly funded vaccination stockpiles in regions affected by epidemics.

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, threaten human life and well-being. They kill 38 million people each year and incur costs that are increasingly a burden in low- and middle-income countries. National health systems, under increasing financial pressure, would perhaps benefit from the preventive line of thought often present in integrative medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and Indian Ayurveda medicine.

In order to fully achieve the SDG for global health, “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages,” it is necessary to incorporate a broader approach than the current WHO work program on “One Health.” The concept must also include planetary health in recognizing the health impacts of the WEHAB nexus. For example anti-microbial resistance due to overuse of antibiotics will have devastating impact on animal health, agriculture, food security, and economic development – and the security of individuals, when even minor infections may become untreatable. Climate change and environmental change have vast impact on human health already today: waterborne diseases ravage after floods, and indoor and outdoor pollution contribute to ill health. The health of our planet is deeply connected to the health of humans.


  1. Global health protection, and investing in it, must be recognized as an issue of national and global security.
  2. In a changing world of water, energy, agriculture, and biodiversity the WHO “One Health” work program on anti-microbial resistance must be extended to include planetary health, to read as: “One health for people’s well-being and planetary health.”
  3. A global Learning Network for One Health: people’s well-being and planetary health should be established to share ideas, best practice, social and community systems in implementing the concept of “One Health for People’s Well-being and Planetary Health.”
  4. Recognizing the impact of conflicts, failed states, and displacement on global health, the WHO should revisit its “Health as a Bridge to Peace” initiative.

Follow the Water

If we are to have planetary health, it needs to be increasingly recognized that there is a nexus wherein water, energy production, health and well-being, agriculture, and biodiversity are so interconnected that our activities in one field will immediately affect the other (the WEHAB-nexus). The planet is habitable for humans and other species because of a delicate balance of fundamental conditions formed over billions of years. When these conditions are strongly, even irreversibly, manipulated in a manner that destroys biodiversity and ecosystems, we are disrupting that balance and eventually even making the planet uninhabitable.

A meaningful level of development must aim for restorative development, not only sustainable development, and this must take place in every state, developing and developed. Sustainable development, while hard to achieve, is still only status quo. We need to do better than that; we need to rejuvenate the planet. A fair, equitable, and sustainable future for all is within our grasp if the 2030 Agenda is implemented urgently. This requires setting measurable and refined targets anchored in the nexus concept.

Lack of access to health, energy, and water are exacerbated in failed states and during armed and protracted violence. Peace is a vital condition to planetary health and human well-being. Sustainable development is therefore also a question of peace and, indeed, peace and justice form their own goal on the 2030 Agenda.

Water is at the centre of the nexus, for it is the one thing no human can live without. Access to clean water is vital to all the other parts forming the nexus: energy, health, agriculture and biodiversity. The crises the planet faces are overlapping and intersecting, and we cannot afford to address them one by one or in isolation. But by following the centre of it, water, we can make progress in all the other areas of the nexus. Conversely, by ignoring the role water plays, the other SDGs will be impossible to achieve.

In the future, conflicts in many regions will increasingly be about access to water and water quality. The Middle East serves as an example of what can happen when regional cooperation is lacking. Iraq, Syria, and Turkey have fought over the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and currently non-state actors control important parts of the basins of these rivers. Today water conflicts are about quantity; in the future, they may be about water quality.

In South and Latin America, the illegal production of narcotics is a serious threat to the region’s water assets and biodiversity. Rainforests are being destroyed to grow coca plants and the chemicals used to refine the plant to cocaine are dumped into waterways. The fight against drugs in one state simply pushes production into another state.

A billion jobs, reflecting 40 per cent of the world’s active workforce, are heavily water dependent. Managing water is also critical to managing the economy.

Ethics and responsibility must be a driving component of climate action, sustainable development, and peace. States, institutions, companies, and individuals alike should recognize that acting on the environment is part of the responsibilities of the present generation toward future generations. We have a responsibility to leave the planet in at least the same shape as it was left to us, and a responsibility to undo the damage that we have done. Responsibility also means that each and everyone must think about the impact of their actions on the wellbeing of the planet.


  1. Governance must move from sectoral solutions into cross-sectoral solutions that address the WEHAB-nexus as a whole.
  2. States should recognize the need for restorative development that not only sustains, but also replenishes our national capital and reforms global financial measures accordingly.
  3. The G20 should set an example by incentivizing accelerated, institutionalized implementation of the SDGs.
  4. The G20 should recognize the ethical responsibility of current generations to future generations in sustaining and restoring the health of the planet.
  5. Recognize the costs of corruption to water management and put into place mechanisms to halt it.
  6. Transboundary water issues are a potential source of conflict but could and should be resolved through integrative water resource management: the G20 should recommend all states to participate in and fully implement agreements on the management of transboundary waters as per SDG 6.

Innovation For a New Green Revolution

Albert Einstein said that we should broaden our circle of compassion to all living creatures, but he also said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” This particularly applies to the way we measure progress. To date, human progress has been defined by financial parameters. We will not advance, if we only focus on financial progress. We need to broaden our definitions of what constitutes human progress by including measures such as: natural capital, social capital, and human capital.

Challenges often present themselves as opportunities for change. “Building resilient infrastructure, promoting sustainable industrialization and fostering innovation” is goal number 9 of the SDGs. Innovation is therefore materialized as a goal within the SDGs, but it is also a means to contribute to the achievement of the rest of the goals. In addition to reassessing and reviewing our lifestyles in the developed world, growth is necessary in developing nations to achieve the SDGs. Without growth in the developing world it is impossible to reach the goals of no poverty, zero hunger, decent work, health, and education.

Responsible and environmentally sound growth will require innovation and new technologies; innovation must be seen as a means to solve environmental problems without creating new ones. Technological progress is at the heart of achieving the SDGs, such as increased resource and energy-efficiency. Innovation requires money, but capital for innovation in particular is currently not flowing to the developing countries. This needs to change.

One area in which we need more innovation than any other is agriculture. Agriculture is the foundation of our civilization and the foundation of development. Projected population growth (12.3 billion by 2100 according to the UN’s 2014 Biennial Report) will require a 60 per cent increase in food production from the levels in 2005. Already at the rates of today, agriculture is the largest user of water globally, and a major user of energy. It is doubtful whether there will be enough water in the world to sustain necessary production levels in the future. Agricultural practices that increase productivity and production using less water and energy are needed. These practices must reverse the unintended consequences of the first agricultural revolution, while at the same time help maintain ecosystems, respond to climate change by reducing the impacts of extreme weather, drought, flooding, and other disasters that progressively diminish land and soil health. The 2030 Agenda calls for a New Green Revolution in agriculture by 2030.


  1. A more refined measure of human progress than the GDP must be developed in order to measure development in a more systemic and holistic manner. The G20 should replace purely financial accounting metrics with performance metrics based on planetary health.
  2. Innovation and technological advancement should focus on the WEHAB-nexus.
  3. Research aimed at the “Next Green Revolution” in agriculture should be incentivized and supported. Innovation should support local, sustainable farming that produces products that are healthy for people and good for the land and soil.
  4. Global cooperation in the field of eco-education is needed to raise awareness and knowledge about the effects of human life on the planet.
  5. Initiate an investment fund with public and private partnerships, which would invest and bring technology from small and medium sized enterprises from the developed countries into developing markets.
  6. As the G20 nations invest in infrastructure, natural capital, such as restoring wetlands, should be prioritized on an equal footing with more traditional infrastructure such as highways.