The concept of the water-energy-food (W-E-F) nexus has quickly ascended to become a global framing for resource management policies. Critical studies, however, are questioning its value for assessing the sustainability of local livelihoods. These critiques flow in part from the perception that the majority of influential nexus analyses begin from a large-scale, implicitly top-down perspective on resource dynamics. This can lead to efficiency narratives that reinforce existing power dynamics without adequate consideration of local priorities. Here, we present a community-scale perspective on large W-E-F oriented infrastructure. In doing so, we link the current debate on the nexus with alternative approaches to embrace questions of water distribution, political scales, and resource management. The data for this paper come from a survey of 549 households conducted around two large-scale irrigation and hydropower dams in the Upper Blue Nile basin of Ethiopia. The data analysis involved descriptive statistics, logistic analysis, and multinomial logistic analysis. The two case studies presented show that the impact of dams and the perception thereof is socially diverse. Hydropower dams and irrigation schemes tend to enhance social differences and may therefore lead to social transformation and disintegration. This becomes critical when it leads to higher vulnerability of some groups. To take these social factors/conditions into consideration, one needs to acknowledge the science-policy interface and make the nexus approach more political. The paper concludes that if the nexus approach is to live up to its promise of addressing sustainable development goals by protecting the livelihoods of vulnerable populations, it has to be applied in a manner that addresses the underlying causes that produce winners and losers in large-scale water infrastructure developments.
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