As I join my colleagues this week in Cape Town (South Africa), to exchange positive experiences on climate resilience at the 2018 Adaptation Futures Conference, I could be somber. The world’s premier knowledge event related to adaptation is taking place in a city coping with its worst drought ever. Signs at the airport, throughout the city and the hotel warn: “Don’t Waste a Drop!”, “Every Drop Counts” or simply “Save Water.”
This issue is one we should be thinking about more and more often. As populations continue to grow, there needs to be new innovations to increase sustainable food production, without draining the earth. With factors such as climate change impacting water supplies and security, business-as-usual just won’t cut it.
For this reason, on January 29th, 2018, the Water for Food International Forum Innovation Fair: Innovate to Irrigate, gathered together 19 organizations who are leading the way in this challenge, through creative technologies that support farmer-led irrigation practices.
We’re used to talking about how the failure to invest in water management can impede economic growth, but the positive case for water management investments can be just as compelling. With support from the Israeli government, my colleagues and I recently took a study tour to Israel, and what we saw on the ground showed that combining policy and technology can lead not only to better local water management, but also result in a multi-billion dollar, export-driven industry.
I am constantly startled by references to “population growth” as a cause of a number of development challenges. Whether it’s urbanization, food security, or water scarcity, all too often “population growth” is cited as a cause for pessimism or even a reason not to strive for progress. I can almost see Thomas Malthus grinning at me from the shadows.
It gets worse. I recently reviewed a paper where higher fertility among minorities was touted as an explanation for their poverty! A few months ago, a respected professional wrote asking why we weren’t doing more on family planning, since fertility in Africa would pretty much stymie any efforts to provide infrastructure-based services! I hear statements to this effect routinely from policy makers in charge of infrastructure ministries and projects (“how can we keep up with the population?” or “nothing we do will be enough unless we control the population”) but am always amazed when I hear them from scientists of different hues.
So I thought I’d try to set the record straight:
Agriculture is both a victim and a cause of water scarcity. Water of appropriate quality and quantity is essential for the production of crops, livestock, and fisheries, as well as for the processing and preparation of these foods and products. Water is the lifeblood of ecosystems, including forests, lakes, and wetlands, on which the food and nutritional security of present and future generations depends. At the same time, agriculture is the largest water user globally, and a major source of water pollution. Unsustainable agricultural water use practices threatens the sustainability of livelihoods dependent on water and agriculture.
Additionally, climate change will have significant impacts on agriculture by increasing water demand, limiting crop productivity, and reducing water availability in areas where irrigation is most needed or has a comparative advantage. A growing number of regions will face increasing water scarcity. Climate change will bring greater variation in weather events, more frequent weather extremes, and new challenges requiring the sector to take mitigation and adaptation actions.
To many people, it is a surprise to learn that in an age of such advanced technology, at least 663 million people still lack access to basic needs, like safe drinking water, or that 2.5 billion people lack access to sanitation, such as a toilet or latrine. And while much progress has been made, receiving safe drinking water 24 hours a day, seven days a week simply by turning a tap is still a dream for many in the developing world.
Even fewer realize this is not just a problem for families, but also for those on which families rely and that also need water: the farmers who grow the families’ food, the environment that protects and sustains their homes and communities, the businesses that employ them, the cities that house them, the schools that educate their children, the clinics and hospitals that treat them, and even the power plants that generate their electricity.
Why does this challenge persist? How can this challenge be met? And an increasingly urgent question: is there enough water to go around?
A challenging area in agricultural water management is the assessment of policy and investment options in irrigated agriculture for conserving water and adapting to increasing water scarcity, in particular when the linkages to groundwater resources and their management are to be considered and incorporated.
However, this is an increasingly important area of research for a number of reasons. First, and is a major contributing factor to the water scarcity situation in many countries. Second, with almost a quarter of freshwater withdrawals for irrigated agriculture being made up of groundwater supplies—corresponding to 70% of total groundwater withdrawals—, And, third, with groundwater discharge contributing to the base flow of streams and surface water contributing to groundwater recharge, and these interactions are intensified by human action, in particular water withdrawals for irrigated agriculture. Even in cases where irrigated agriculture depends mostly on surface water, groundwater impacts therefore need to be accounted for when assessing water conservation efforts (and vice versa).
Check out our collection of photos, videos and tweets of World Water Week 2016.