Published in: State of the Planet | Earth Institute | Columbia University
“The foundation of the green economy will rest on our ability to equitably and efficiently manage our water, energy and food resources.” This statement from the stakeholders of the 2011 World Water Week in Stockholm to the forthcoming Rio + 20 Summit summit captures the state of the planet.
Water is essential to human well-being and economic development. Today, however, water stress caused by inadequate farming practices, demographic pressure and pollution is creating unprecedented problems. Nowhere is this more visible than in the rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa. As the world celebrates World Water Day on the 22nd of March to draw attention to these issues, lessons learned from the Millennium Villages Project can provide a way forward. The project’s success in improving both water and food security are just some of the practical, science-based solutions that rural communities all over the world can use to extract themselves from poverty.
About one-third of the world’s population suffers from moderate-to-high water stress–where water consumption exceeds renewable supply by 10 percent. By 2020, it is estimated that this figure will grow to two-thirds of the world’s population . The 2011 UN Environment Programme Report noted that “with no improvement in efficiency of water use, water demand is expected to outstrip supply by 40 percent by 2030.”
The theme of this year’s World Water Day is food security, a theme which reverberates with key challenges–without water security, there will be no food security or peace in many parts of the planet.
The magnitude of the water crisis calls for global action–both geopolitical and trans- boundary water resource management. Water and food security are inextricably linked to global stability, as illustrated by the many trans-boundary water resource conflicts today which echo the 1985 statement by former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali that “the wars of the next century will be about water.” Protracted conflicts in the Nile and Jordan River basins are testimony to the seriousness of the crisis. Most of the water in conflict-prone river basins such as these supports agriculture, the lifeline for affected populations.
Water is key to sustaining livelihoods in an already crowded planet. Food production accounts for more than 70 percent of the world’s freshwater use; one of the targets of the Stockholm statement is to increase water efficiency in agriculture by 20 percent. Irrigation produces about 40 percent of the world’s food production, and 17 percent more water will be required to meet the food needs of the growing population – expected to be about 8 billion by 2020. Any solution to the global water crisis must focus on improving agricultural water management – both rain-fed and irrigated systems.
The situation is aggravated by climate change, with the IPCC predicting that by 2020, rain-fed crop yields in some countries will decrease by 50 percent, and an estimated 50-250 million people in Africa will face increased water stress. With poverty increasing in most developing countries and financial crisis facing many developed countries, achieving the Millennium Development Goals is becoming more challenging. The goals of the African Green Revolution are also unattainable without increased investment in agricultural water management. Recent food crises in many countries and high food prices attest to a deteriorating situation that calls for urgent international action.
Where physical water scarcity is the issue, virtual water trading provides a potential solution.
Most developing countries experience economic water scarcity–limited financial resources to develop their water supplies. Ways of addressing this issue include employing more rain-fed agriculture and increaseing the land area under irrigated agriculture, which is only 6 percent in Africa, compared to 40 percent in Asia. Increasing investments and resources to develop new water supply systems or improve existing ones can help to meet increasing food demand. Akissa Bahri, the coordinator of the African Development Bank’s Africa Water Facility, stated that “the slow pace of progress of [the] water sector in Africa reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the importance of water in economic development and poverty alleviation.” The impact of hydrological variability on the GDP of many African countries attests to this. Therefore, any solution to addressing water and food insecurity must tackle the root cause of under-development and under-utilization of the water resources. For example, existing irrigation systems often operate at only 30-40 percent capacity, which provides an opportunity to as much as double food production at the current water withdrawal rate.
Lessons from the Millennium Villages Project can lead the way forward. Based in the poorest and most challenging environments in sub-Saharan Africa, the 14 Millennium Villages have increased food production and crop diversification, while at the same time increasing household income – by transforming subsistence farming to commercialized agriculture. This was achieved by adapting the integrated water resources management approach, on the premise that complex water issues can only be addressed at the community and farm level. Village interventions were based on site-specific water challenges, feasible technical options, traditional practices, farmers’ preferences, and expected economic returns.
The Millennium Villages Project’s work in improving agricultural water management has yielded remarkable results. In Mwandama, Malawi, stream diversion for small, gravity-fed irrigation projects has put over 200 hectares under winter crop production. In Koraro, Ethiopia, a combination of irrigation wells and rainwater harvesting using micro-dams has put almost 2,000 hectares under double cropping in a semi-arid environment, with an additional seasonal income of USD $4 million for about 3,000 households. In Mayange, Rwanda, small-scale rainwater harvesting has enabled households to raise an income of USD $12,000 per season in one of the most drought-prone and food-insecure areas of the country. In Sauri, Kenya, the Millennium Villages Project established greenhouses for weather-sensitive crops such as tomatoes and kale, which fetch high prices at market.
Looking ahead, the Millennium Villages Project will convert improved agricultural productivity in the villages to agribusiness opportunities, ensuring the sustainability of gains made so far. This will be achieved by adopting a business approach: organizing farmers into cooperatives and providing them with low-interest loans. For large irrigation projects requiring high investment, the project is exploring a Built Operate and Transfer (BOT) financing mechanism to ensure farmers acquire the necessary organizational, management and technical skills while guaranteeing repayment of the investment cost – after which the farmers will take full responsibility.
The main challenges for the Millennium Villages Project remains improving water productivity to generate “more crop per drop” and overcoming the slow adoption of water-saving technologies like drip irrigation by farmers. These methods alone have the potential to double the area under irrigation with already available water resources. Finally, there is a need for increased investment to expand the benefits to other smallholder farmers and scale up improved agricultural water management across sub-Saharan Africa.