Written by Jeremy Bird Director General International Water Management Institute
Few professions are more mindful of water than farmers. Agriculture uses up to 80% of global freshwater withdrawals, and having too much or too little water can spell disaster for crops. But as competing demands for water increase from urbanization and industry, then agriculture will need to both use water more efficiently, and be prepared to have to negotiate for its reasonable share. This is being done against a backdrop of climate change. More and more farmers are reporting increased variability in available water. More frequent and extreme floods and droughts are likely to be the new normal for many.
It all sounds alarming, but it doesn’t have to be. As a recent UN report emphasised, the global water “crisis” is primarily one of governance, rather than resource availability. Ill-considered subsidies, a lack of investment in water infrastructure and unsustainable farming practices, all bear much responsibility for the current doom-mongering. These are all things we can change - indeed that change is already underway. New agricultural water technologies are leaner than ever. Big data approaches are revolutionising our ability to manage natural resources sustainably. And governments are at last realising that water cannot be effectively managed in isolated sectors. New thinking – the so-called Nexus approach - is bringing together irrigation, hydropower and environmental concerns to create a more holistic vision for lasting development. And some of the solutions for agriculture may increasingly be financed from these other sectors.
However, current droughts - in California, Brazil and elsewhere - are a wake-up call. Urgent action is needed to stave off disaster. At my own institution, the International Water Management Institute, we are exploring new options for farmers in resource poor countries. There is much we have learnt from the spectacular successes of farming in richer nations, but what works in Adelaide may not work in Addis. We want to find context specific solutions that can deliver real change, and identify the incentives needed for widespread adoption of new practices
In the past, for instance, investments in agricultural water infrastructure have typically focussed on big ticket items: dams, large reservoirs and canal irrigation schemes. These are still important, but there is now an increasing awareness that smaller irrigation investments at farm level may be just as effective in securing sustainable food production. Our research has quantified the huge benefits that such local approaches could deliver. Expanding the use of smallholder water management techniques could increase yields up to 300 percent in some cases, and add tens of billions of US dollars to household revenues across sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Simple groundwater pumps, on-farm ponds and improved rainwater harvesting all make a real difference to the prospects of smallholders who greatly value the flexibility that on-farm water management gives them.
Many of these innovations, however, rely on other factors for success. Market access is critical, as is access to reliable sources of energy. One solution will be to use solar power to pump groundwater. In India installations of solar pumping equipment trebled last year. In a country plagued by power shortages, solar pumping could unlock the irrigation potential of remote but aquifer-rich areas. But India also suffers from over-extraction of groundwater in the north-west and south of the country. “Free” solar power could lead to even more pumping, disastrously depleting groundwater supplies. One option being explored by our researchers is to turn solar energy into a “cash crop” for farmers. Rather than over-pumping, they could be encouraged to feed excess power into the grid. There are now signs that at least one Indian state may target its subsidies to promote this option.
Another trend that has caught the attention of our researchers is that agriculture is becoming more urbanized. A recent study mapped farming in and around cities for the first time and revealed that 40% of farming is now taking place in these areas. Globally this is an area roughly equivalent to the size of the European Union.
This shift has several implications. Firstly, it means that competition for water resources will intensify. Thirsty cities are likely to have more clout than farmers when it comes to water access. Secondly it means that the quality of water used by farmers may deteriorate. Urban waste all too often gets into watercourses. Ninety percent of the developing world's sewage, for instance, is dumped untreated into oceans, rivers and lakes.
The key to sustainable growth will be to turn such challenges into opportunities. Wastewater can be hazardous to human health but it is also nutrient rich. And if water is scarce, then wasting it makes little sense. Better to use it in agriculture, applying carefully considered safeguards. Our researchers have been looking at this issue for over a decade and are continuing to develop and refine guidelines for safe wastewater re-use.
However, we can go further in re-cycling waste. Much of recent urban growth is not connected to functioning sewerage systems. Instead latrines and septic tanks predominate. These have to be regularly emptied, creating another challenge that can be turned into opportunity: What if we could collect this waste and safely convert it to useful fertilizer? That way we can keep our water sources clean, create jobs and support farming all at the same time. So we have begun to look at successful business models that do just that. Across the globe, wastewater entrepreneurs are already beginning to respond to the challenge. We are now trying to understand how they can be best supported, and see if the business models can be replicated elsewhere.
In all of these approaches, the involvement and participation of farmers themselves will be crucial. Farmers understand the importance of water, but they also understand that successful agriculture depends on healthy ecosystems. To keep farming viable, researchers, policy makers and the practitioners themselves must further recognise the interconnectedness of water, land, nature and food. Together agriculture and water research is already providing many of the answers to our global resource challenges. We stand at a crossroads, but if we take the right action, the right path, we can be confident of a brighter, and more water-secure future for years to come.