An interlinkages approach recognizes the complexities inherent in ecosystem dynamics and their interface with the equally complex social, economic and political dynamics inherent in human development and governance, particularly policies, laws and institutions. Its value lies in the dynamic understanding and problem solving opportunities it brings to addressing complex cross-sectoral issues. The interlinkages concept stresses the importance of coordination of action across the relevant dimensions of sustainable development including environmental, social and economic issues.

Box 1: Interlinkages defined

The United Nations University (UNU) has defined interlinkages as:

“A strategic approach to managing sustainable development that seeks to promote greater connectivity between ecosystems and societal actions.”

Practically, this requires a greater level of cohesiveness among institutional, and environment and development responses to the challenges of sustainable development. Additionally, linkages between international, regional and national mechanisms need to be made. The key to developing a strong interlinked approach to sustainable development is the identification of the inherent synergies that exist between different aspects of the environment and an exploration of the potential for more effective coordination between sustainable development issues and their responses.

Source: Malabed 2001

Developing an interlinkages approach requires addressing the complexity of environmental challenges. Box 1 defines interlinkages.

In each situation, policymakers and resource managers will need to determine the appropriate level of interlinkages to address any particular problem. This will need to take into account the multiple scales of interaction, the high incidence of non-linear trajectories, uncertainty, time lags, and the common and conflicting interests of multiple stakeholders (Sayer and Campbell 2004). Successful approaches involve considering, among other things, that:

  • Trade and investment, research and development, science and technology, and health and poverty are all important interlinked drivers of environmental change with both positive and negative impacts. Green environmental issues are linked to brown environmental issues, such as pollution and solid wastes, both impacting on the environment and on development opportunities.
  • Processes which improve cooperation between science, policy making, practice and management can create robust and dynamic response systems that provide for better understanding of the issues and more effective responses (Keeley and Scoones 2003).
  • In any given situation, there may be multiple knowledge systems related to environmental management; different stakeholders may have different interests and values, indicating a need for processes that not only recognize, but also mediate and make trade-offs between these interests.
  • An added challenge is that institutions – laws and policies – operate at multiple scales. The reach and jurisdiction of organizations also vary considerably and thus interlinkages in governance are important.
  • Opportunities for improved participation and the recognition of public values, concerns and priorities in shaping policies are necessary to create linkages between these diverse levels, and to build collaborative and sustainable governance and management systems. These responses should include creating opportunities for participation in regional and sub-regional processes as well as creating more effective decentralization and devolution policies at the national level.
  • The complexity of environmental problems – and thus the identification of opportunities – needs to be addressed through, among other things, analysing the interlinkages between and among the biophysical aspects of the environment and existing policy responses, including sub-regional, regional and international multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs), and institutions in the different sectors and at different levels, and how these affect the sustainability of the environment-human complex.
  • Variations in temporal and spatial scales between different changes within the environment-human complex will need to be identified. Focusing on a single scale may obscure processes that only become obvious at finer or broader scales (Lovell and others 2003). Changes within natural systems and human systems occur at different temporal and spatial scales; for example, environmental shocks are episodic, rainy seasons are cyclic and droughts are stochastic. Stochastic events are those having a random probability distribution or pattern that can be analysed statistically but not predicted precisely. The spatial range of impact of these phenomena may vary. The multiple links between local livelihood sustainability and global climate change indicate the complex and multilevel interactions and interlinkages between human and environmental systems.

The interlinkages concept promotes building cooperation across institutional boundaries and between different interests at and across multiple scales. It can, for example, be used to establish links and build synergies between departments of meteorology, water and agriculture in addressing issues related to water availability, distribution, allocation and use. In some circumstances, institutional links between institutions and organizations operating at different spatial scales will be required. Water basins, for example, cut across national boundaries and there are multiple users and stakeholders. The progress made in eradicating Dracunculus medinensis, Guinea worm, lies in the strong interlinkages approach taken between different sectors, such as health, education and water management, and across countries, as shown in Box 2.

Box 2: Interlinkages in progress towards eradicating Guinea-worm disease
Village-based volunteers demonstrating the use of a cloth filter on a clay pot to filter drinking water.
Source: WHO

Guinea-worm disease is a debilitating and painful infection caused by a large nematode (roundworm), Dracunculus medinensis. It is a parasite and people are the only known host.

In the 1950s there were about 50 million cases. However, as a result of concerted efforts by the international community and the endemic countries, the number of cases of Guinea-worm disease was reduced to about 96 000 by 1999. In 2005, Guinea-worm disease was prevalent in only 13 countries in Africa including Sudan, Nigeria, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Niger, Togo and Côte d’Ivoire. A small number of cases have also been reported in Uganda, Benin, Mali, Mauritania, Ethiopia and Chad. Sudan has about 73 per cent of all reported cases. Efforts to eradicate Guinea-worm in Sudan have been affected by prolonged civil war.

The disease begins with a blister and close to the time of its eruption, the infected person may experience itching, fever, swelling and burning sensations. Infected people commonly try to relieve the pain by immersing the infected part in water, usually open water sources such as ponds and shallow wells. This stimulates the worm to emerge and release thousands of larvae into the water, which are ingested by water fleas, where they develop and become infective in two weeks. When a person drinks the water, the water flea is dissolved by the acidity of the stomach, and the larva is activated and penetrates the gut wall. It develops and migrates through the subcutaneous tissue. After about one year, a blister forms and the mature worm, 1m long, tries to emerge through the skin, thus repeating the life cycle.

For people with no access to medical care, healing of the ulcers can take several weeks. The disease can result in bacterial infection, stiff joints, arthritis and permanent debilitating contractures of the limbs. It has serious adverse effects on health, agricultural production and school attendance. People in endemic villages are often incapacitated during peak agricultural activities; this affects agricultural production and the availability of household food, and consequently the nutritional status of their family, particularly young children.

The World Health Organization (WHO), in collaboration with other international organizations, non-governmental organizations and national governments, has adopted an eradication strategy, based on community surveillance in every known endemic village. Specific interventions include health education, case containment, communitybased surveillance systems and provision of safe water, including the use of filtering devices and chemical treatment of water sources. This requires a multipronged interlinkages approach.

Sources: CBD 1992, Shrine and others 2000, ESA 1998

A key objective of the interlinkages approach is to demonstrate the importance of the environment and its sound management to other sectors, and thus to ensure that holistic approaches are taken to problem solving so that advancements can be made in human well-being, human vulnerability to environmental change can be minimized, and the environmental base can be sustained. Box 3 emphasizes the environment-economy- human well-being interlinkage identified by the Brundtland Commission, which has since gained wide recognition in many global, regional and national policies and strategies.

Box 3: Ecology and economy: dual factors in improving human well-being

“Economy is not just about the production of wealth, and ecology is not just about the protection of nature; they are both equally relevant for improving the lot of humankind.”

“... the distribution of power and influence within society lies at the height of most environment and development challenges. Hence new approaches must involve programmes of social development, particularly to improve the position of women in society, to protect vulnerable groups, and to promote local participation in decision making.”

Source: WCED 1987

Various global and regional policy responses, such as the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) framework, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, individually and collectively, provide opportunities for enhancing synergies, promoting interlinkages among the environmental challenges, and mainstreaming the environment within and across institutional, temporal and spatial boundaries. Box 4 highlights some of the interlinkages related to the implementation of activities, at a national level, to address the MDGs and demonstrates that the appropriateness of such an approach will vary from country to country.

Adopting an interlinkages approach in the formulation of policy and the development of programmes can help to ensure that interventions are more relevant, robust and effective, and that these policies are based on principles that are cross-sectoral and interdisciplinary. This approach can also help to sharpen the focus of policy and action, while at the same time ensuring that spatial and temporal factors across multiple sectors and ecosystems are also fully considered. Interlinkages may help bring into focus certain issues, such as gender, that are often neglected. When effective institutional systems are developed to implement an interlinkages approach, it can give policymakers the advantage of having a better grasp of the range of options available, the costs and benefits of their decisions, and how to determine the interdepartmental links that are necessary to promote “joined-up policies.”

Box 4: Interlinkages for health-related MDGs

The pursuit of the health-related MDGs may demand interventions based on interlinkages between different governmental institutions. In any given case, several different government departments’ or agencies’ mandate might be directly relevant to meeting the targets associated with the different goals. The choice of vehicles for these interventions may differ not only between sectors, but also at different phases of the intervention. Interlinkages between ministries and sectors will thus be vital for policy making, planning and evaluation, but the delivery of operational services may be best undertaken by one institution with integrated powers and resources.

Goal 4 of the MDGs focuses on reducing child mortality. Target 5 seeks to reduce under-five mortality rate by two-thirds from 1990 to 2015. The incidence of infant mortality varies greatly across the region, ranging from an infant mortality rate of 165 in every 1 000 in Sierra Leone, to 84 in every 1 000 in Madagascar, and 17 in every 1 000 in Mauritius. The interventions necessary to achieve this MDG target vary from country to country, depending on the levels of child health already achieved and on the primary causes of death.

In some countries, such as Seychelles and Mauritius, the principal interventions might focus on further developing the already high technology neonatal care services available in the highly specialized national paediatric units and on providing rapid emergency transport to ensure that the most vulnerable small and sick babies are referred from community services to the centralized specialist units. These specialized services in most African countries are largely controlled, funded and managed through a central health ministry. Interlinkages with other ministries and sectors are not the principal mechanism for achieving this MDG in these countries.

In countries where the infant mortality is very high, and closely linked to environmental factors, the principal interventions may be the provision of safe water, controlling atmospheric and other pollution, improved sanitation, better nutrition and providing basic primary health care to urban and rural areas. Ministries of health are not responsible for water, sanitation and food, but have an important role to play in promoting the development of the services and supporting their colleagues at cabinet level, so that they have the necessary funds and technical support to accomplish the task. Interlinkages to achieve these health objectives are vital at the policy and planning stages, as the delivery of many of these services depends on the work of ministries other than health.

Source: Roberts 2004