Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

How Research Can Banish Water and Food Scarcity

September 09, 2014

This last week – water has been on our lips. It’s a vital resource we all need to live, whether it’s to drink, to nourish the crops we eat, or to power the technologies we rely on. The way in which we try to pull water in these three directions—known as the water-food-energy nexus—has been the center of discussion at World Water Week in Stockholm. It is estimated that by 2030, almost half the world’s population will suffer from water scarcity. That means we need to act fast to develop ways for water to be used more efficiently.

Right now, the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems is at work on river basins that cover 13.5 million square kilometers, home to over 1.5 billion people, searching for these solutions. In over a decade of research, CGIAR’s water programs have uncovered some of the most innovative ways to ensure the world’s water can meet our needs. Here are just a few examples.

Doubling Farmer Income Near Vietnam Dam With New Cassava Varieties

The Yali Falls Hydropower Dam in Vietnam, completed in 2003, generates 720 megawatts of renewable energy. However, this resulted in almost 2,000 hectares of farmland being lost. Although the dam’s reservoir created a fertile drawdown zone (land periodically available when the reservoir levels drop) of roughly the same size, crops planted there were at risk of sudden flooding. The International Water Management Institute (IWMI) led a project that helped improve crop productivity in this area by introducing a variety of cassava that takes only seven months to mature, and can be harvested before the threat of floods becomes imminent. Following a trial in 2013, cassava yield was estimated to be between 60 and 89 percent higher, and net income for the farmers had doubled.

Feeding Families in West Africa By Improving Rainwater Capture

In the semi-arid regions of the Volta Basin in West Africa, small-scale farmers who rely on rain-fed agriculture to survive are at the mercy of increasingly erratic rainfall patterns. Frequent dry spells cause the precious little water that does come to evaporate, leaving only 10% of rainfall to nourish crops. However, a project led by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) helped these farmers in Burkina Faso to triple maize yields. Farmers were encouraged to plant their seeds in small pits filled with organic matter such as leaves. This technique known as zai in the local language not only catches rainwater directly at the roots of the plant, but also a concentred source of nutrients from the organic mulch. When this technique was coupled with precise application of mineral fertilizers and the planting of beans and pulses that fix nitrogen into soil, maize yields tripled.

Piloting Benefit Sharing Mechanisms in Peru

Farmers, rural households, hydropower companies and industries all rely on the Cañete River basin that stretches across 6,000 square kilometers of land in Peru. However, the shrinking number of glaciers, an influx of wastewater and extensive livestock grazing has damaged the quality of this water, threatening the future of the river basin and those who depend on it. The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) leads a project that monitored the effects of introducing a “benefit-sharing mechanism” in the Cañete River basin, redistributing the benefits of a healthy watershed fairly between all water users. This normally takes the form of a series of agreements on how to use land and water in ways that protect the environment, are sustainable and account for climate change. They also determine how downstream water users can provide benefits such as schools and healthcare to the upstream communities that care for the environmental health of the basin. Most importantly, research showed that these agreements must be continually revised to meet the changing needs of these communities.

These examples from all over the globe show that the challenges are varied, and vast. But they also show that the right interventions can detangle the water-food-energy nexus and offer the rural poor a future that does not involve either water or food scarcity.

You can read more about the last decade of CGIAR’s research into water scarcity, livelihoods and food security in a new book, out now.

  • Tags World Water Week
  • Share
blog comments powered by Disqus