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Sustainable Water Agriculture Ensures Environmental Security

By Scott Vaughan
President International Institute for Sustainable Development

By Scott Vaughan, President, International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD)

We all depend on a reliable supply of clean, fresh water for life, for our livelihoods and for economic development. Humans have shown remarkable ingenuity in finding new technology pathways and substitutes for many resource needs. However, we cannot live without fresh water. While progress has been made in the delivery of clean water for all, too many people still face crippling damage to human health, as well as broader economic development challenges, because of inadequate or dirty water.

One of the biggest users of water is agriculture, accounting for 70 per cent of all water use worldwide. Water is the lifeblood of agriculture and food production.

In recent years, policy-makers have recognized the joint challenges associated with clean, abundant water and global food security. As the planet’s population increases, food-growing systems face mounting pressures to secure long-term supplies of clean water responsive to the demands of ever more complex food distribution supply chains and changing domestic diets. Despite progress, practical impediments to coordinating water management and agricultural policies persist due to any number of barriers, including competing water uses, the lack of common measurement and indicator systems, the failure of economic systems to properly value water ecosystems and the long-standing bureaucratic turf battles between ministries of water and agriculture.

This is changing. Water and agricultural specialists are realizing the merits of crafting integrated policies on water management and food security, driven by the common challenge that climate change is exerting on hydrological systems, growing seasons and the changing risks of large-scale crop failure. Scientific models showing the impacts of extreme weather events on water cycles and water availability have, unfortunately, been proven all too often by extreme flooding and prolonged drought catastrophes. The three-year drought in the U.S. Southwest is one example of the multi-year droughts countries and regions are facing. The deep drought conditions in New South Wales and Queensland are well beyond the normal cycle of droughts and are exerting profoundly negative economic impacts on local agricultural producers, their families and communities.

The ability of agricultural systems to adapt to prolonged drought through efficiency and conservation is limited. It is impossible to conserve if there is no supply. Climate change is thus pointing to the need to take a look, through a sustainable development lens, at the pattern of agricultural investments in the face of changing water scarcity linked to climate impacts. It makes little economic—let alone environmental—sense to ramp up investments in water-intensive crops bound for export markets in areas that are already water-stressed. As high-value, water-intensive export farm crops face diminishing water supplies, many have turned to groundwater aquifers to continue farm output. Yet groundwater aquifer tables in a growing number of regions are under increasing strain by the twin impacts of scarcity and near depletion, coupled with contamination from agro-chemical inputs such as nutrients.

Agricultural “drain” on water supplies has partly driven the recent wave of foreign investment in farmland. It is advantageous for (often developed) states with insecure or depleted water resources to outsource their water use by purchasing land in (often developing) states and growing crops abroad. What has been termed a “land grab” may perhaps be better labelled a “great water grab,” as the land purchased is of little use without the freshwater supplies provided by the host state.  These investments often take place in developing countries already facing challenges of depleted water supplies, poor water management governance and policies that deliver essential needs like clean water delivery and wastewater and sanitation treatment with practical ways to support ecosystem approaches to water management.

IISD’s approach to sustainable water management challenges is to build the case for integrated approaches. Experts have advocated integrated water resource management for two decades. Yet in practice, disciplines within the water community remain distinct from the agricultural sector. IISD has championed and replicated innovative and science-based solutions like the use of bio-economy solutions to remove nutrients from lake basins at the same time that on-the-ground resilience strategies for water delivery are being rolled out. The core lesson IISD has learned is that progress to climate resilience cannot be achieved without the participation of local communities, and there is no scenario in which farming communities can prosper unless the current trends of greenhouse gas emissions are tackled and substantial reductions to emissions occur as climate adaptation efforts increase.


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