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More Crop Per Drop

waterweekimage.jpg You might have missed the opening of World Water Week in Stockholm this past weekend. There was no gala celebration nor an appearance by Bono or Brangelina to attract the paparazzi. The keynote speaker was High Royal Highness Willem-Alexander, Prince of Orange, not exactly a household name on this side of the Atlantic.

The annual session is an important gathering for international policymakers who are focused on water management issues. The time has come to take water out of the hands of a select few academics and regulators. Rather, an open discussion about water priorities must move into the mainstream. It deserves the attention of anyone who is concerned about issues of environmental sustainability and resource management because the global water scarcity shows no signs of abating.

In fact, the future would appear dire. This past week, a panel of scientists released a groundbreaking study on water usage over the past half-century. Under the banner of the International Water Management Institute, more than 700 researchers from 100 institutions across the world contributed to this important study. Their warnings should wake us from our collective slumber

Some of the news might not surprise long-time observers. For example, the report estimates that one out of three people living on the planet currently suffer from a scarcity of water in their daily lives. This is terrifying, but consistent with the statistics published for years by the United Nations. But a more important element from the report concerns water usage.

IWMI found that, if we continue to apply current water manageent practices, by 2050 the global agricultural sector will need to double the amount of water to grow the food we eat. The researchers found that such a hurdle actually is consistent with historical trends as water usage has increased by an estimated six times in the past 100 years. Nonetheless, it remains a staggering proposition. Agriculture already uses 70 percent of the global water supply. Imagine a scenario where its consumption must grow 200% simply to satisfy the basic hunger of the planet.

Another alarming finding is the impact of bio-fuels on the world water crisis. As we all know, a range of factors – Middle East turmoil, spiraling oil prices, the inconvenient truth of climate change – are driving a worldwide quest for more sustainable resources. Yet, this accelerating campaign to pursue alternative energies, biodegradable packaging, etc. from sources such as corn, sugarcane and other crops dramatically will increase the burden on natural systems. It seems a cruel Hobson’s choice for environmentalists and other concerned individuals who care about sustainabiltiy. Nonetheless, the advent of widespreads bio-fuels could add even more stress to our shrinking water resources.

We can and must implement strategies to manage this imbalance. As IWMI researcher David Molden expressed last week in a tidy soundbite, we need to achieve “more crop per drop.” Rapid implementation of more efficient irrigation techniques and research into higher-yielding crop varieties could alleviate this pressure as well as sharing these innovations with farmers in the developing world where the scarcity is most profound. The adoption of small-scale technologies such as the much-heralded Roundabout or the micro-irrigation tools developed by KickStart also could be impactful and create immediate results for those individuals and families living in water-scarce rural environments.

IWMI also offered specific counsel to all the 'managers' of the earth's water resources, including the recognition of water as a scarce resource. This might seem obvious, but such an admission could open the door for a much-needed discussion of water as an economic good. Such a statement is bound to upset some among the activist community who consider water to be an inalienable (thus free) human right, but we can no longer afford to resort to polemics.

With broad consensus around this concept of water as an economic good, it might be possible to explore tiered pricing strategies and a wide range of other demand-based mechanisms to model responsible corporate behavior around water usage. Joel Makower has written here about the need for businesses to prioritize sound water management strategies. Along with more responsible priate sector practices, we must advocate that elected governments also assume the mantle of responsibility for improved water stewardship through policy and programs.

It could be time to launch a global water security plan to engage and enfranchise national governments and non-governmental actors in a shared approach to effective water management. There is room for hope – last year, Congress passed the Safe Water: Currency for Peace act that enshrined water as priority of US foreign policy. After World Water Week, this could be an ideal time for the US to initiate a multi-country action on water management.

There are lessons from similar efforts, such as the recent collaboration of developed and developing countries on the global HIV/AIDS crisis. What if the US led a multilateral framework to create a Global Fund for water-based research? With aggressive capital deployment, such a fund could catalyze the R&D necessary to enable a new wave of innovation of water-related technologies and practices. Such an endeavor could be kicked off by a Rio-style summit on water that convened international leaders to engage on the problem, a meeting that itself could evolve into an annual G-8-style leaders meeting to maintain attention toward the problem. This would be a major improvement over the wonkish World Water Forum that convenes only once every three years and garners negligible media coverage.

Again, you can hear the alarm bells ringing in Stockholm. Through new strategies and somewhat unconventional tactics, both corporations and governments can break new ground to halt the impending crisis. If we fail to do so, we only will have ourselves to blame.

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Thanks for a great post Jonathan. I hope this won't sound like a quibble, but I think the kind of new thinking we need would suggest a different title: "Less Drops Per Crop". The difference in titles matters: if we strive for greater efficiency, but keep our overarching goal of ever-more exponential growth, then we'll only postpone a water crisis for a few years or decades. When we change our fundamental goal from growth to sufficiency, then these desperately-needed gains in efficiency will help.

We almost never realize how strongly growth dominates our thinking and culture until we challenge its legitimacy. We rarely acknowledge how meager all our Bright Green news is until we do that. We foresee a water challenge because we foresee exponential growth in the use of water. (This growth outstrips population growth: while population has slightly more than doubled over the past 50 years, our use of water has nearly tripled.) Technical solutions are encouraged, and vital, yet our culture won't let us challenge the fundamental, embedded structural pattern of growth. Until we can do that, I'm afraid that we're only nibbling at the margins.

Posted by: David Foley on 29 Aug 06

Excellent point. It would be extremely helpful to change the paradigm away from growth for its own sake and focus on sufficiency for our communal benefit. This approach might be counterintuitive relative to a national ethos obsessed with watching the scoreboard for improved earnings, higher comps, and better EPS - but its just the type of thinking that we need if we hope to play the long game and optimize our long-term future.

Posted by: Jonathan on 29 Aug 06



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