Tarraleah Power Station in Tasmania. Photo: Josh Simmons / Flickr.

The water-energy-food nexus concept recognizes the complex interdependencies between the named sectors and seeks to analyse them as a single system to promote resource sustainability and effective governance.

We review 63 self-identified empirical nexus studies to evaluate consistency, added value and transferability of nexus applications. Our synthesis of the scholarship includes insights regarding a working definition of the WEF nexus, the primary motivations for empirical nexus studies, the role of economics and governance in nexus analyses, and the nexus’ dependence on socio-political and physical constructs.

However, we find no clear boundaries to constrain the WEF nexus applications, and the resulting diversity of scholarship limits the synoptic conclusions that can be derived from it. The empirical WEF nexus research has not produced a discernible intellectual toolkit, nor has it validated claims that nexus approaches can improve resource management and governance outcomes. The lack of evidence for improving outcomes is a serious challenge that must be addressed if empirical WEF nexus research is to realize its promise.