As a science communicator with a special interest in agricultural research and innovation, I’m excited about the opportunity to join researchers and science communicators from around the world who are converging on South Africa for the 3rd International Forum on Water and Food, taking place in Pretoria from 13 – 17 November 2011.
The Forum provides a platform for diverse role players to share their latest insights about making farming more resilient and sustainable. A quick scan of the agenda confirms that it is packed with success stories of how research can help ensure future food security for millions of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people who are living in densely populated river deltas and coastal zones. It also highlights the many emerging challenges facing these regions in terms of future food security, and explores the often complex linkages between food and water.
I’m expecting to learn about new ways that science can support agriculture and aquaculture to remain productive and profitable, despite the challenges brought about by industrialisation, population growth and global change.
For me, as an African science communicator, it is an added bonus that this Forum will include a focus on challenges and solutions relevant to Africa.
The research outcomes that will be presented emanate from the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food. It will feature work done in the six basins where this programme is currently active, namely the Andes, Ganges, Limpopo, Mekong, Nile and Volta basins. The Forum will assess progress and identify lessons learned, and it will look at the potential for scaling up and scaling out solutions across all six basins.
It is encouraging that several sessions will address the social and human dimensions of agricultural research, but somewhat disappointing that only one paper looks at gender issues in agricultural research. At least several papers acknowledge the importance and value of local wisdom (or indigenous knowledge).
Inventive ways of communicating science is a key theme and I’m really looking forward to hearing more about how researchers are using knowledge sharing tools – ranging from grass roots dialogue through to social media tools – to make their research widely accessible. The importance of two-way communication (truly listening to people) and engaging policy makers also feature on the agenda.
Making sense of close to 150 presentations over four days is a daunting prospect. Fortunately the organisers opted for a variety of engaging presentation formats. If you’ve never participated in a world café, fish bowl or even a Samoan circle, this is your opportunity. Acknowledging Africa’s tradition of storytelling, and the power of storytelling as a communication tool, the opening day will feature storytellers from each of the six basins.
Here are some of the many stories that have piqued my interest when scanning the close to 140 abstracts submitted by researchers from more than 50 organisations who are partners in the Challenge Program on Water and Food:
- Trees bring water: How a persistent myth in the Andes is proving true – the environmental benefits of re-forestation.
- Turning “slash and burn” into “slash and mulch”: A new approach in drought-prone areas of the sub-humid tropics that is delivering many soil and water benefits to farmers.
- Farmers in East Africa are finding new solutions to overcome destructive foraging by termites: How moving away from chemical control in favour of night corralling and pasture reseeding improves water productivity, livestock feed production and ecosystem health.
- Indigenous engineering skills offer small-scale irrigation solutions: A case study of the Mada-jalala resettled community in the Blue Nile Basin of Ethiopia.
- Rice research is paying off and boosting profits: New salt-tolerant and flood-resistant rice varieties can cope with increased flooding and salinity brought on by climate change. Aerobic rice is another new variety that grows on dry fields and needs very little water. Farmers are also benefiting from moving from a single rice crop per year to multiple rice crops, or various combinations of rice and fish, shrimp and vegetables.
- Smart technologies can change the face of agriculture: How cutting-edge technologies such as remote sensing (data from satellites) and predictive modelling are used to make farming more effective and sustainable.
- Large hydropower dams are changing people’s lives and destroying life-supporting ecosystems: Why are affected communities ignored? What are their options for adapting? Can these dams be made more people- and environment-friendly?
- Why scientific solutions fail (how to get from new knowledge to practical solutions): There are many steps between scientific outcomes and real-life applications. Speakers will explore the role of institutions, policies and culture in food security, as well as the need to involve communities in research and how can this be done?
- How and why is climate change impacting food security?: There are some encouraging stories to be told about how advanced technologies can be used to overcome the challenges of climate change?
As water is a key focus, much of the Forum content will focus on water-related issues. A key question is: Do we really have too little water, or is the real challenge to use it more fairly and effectively? More potential story angles include:
- The global water outlook and challenges – for example increased scarcity, pollution, siltation, erosion, sedimentation, salinity and climate change. How does this link with food security? How is research responding?
- Are “water wars” becoming a reality? Explore the importance of equitable sharing and allocation of water. Feature case studies of water conflicts arising from hydroelectric plants and mining; as well as conflicts between up-stream and down-stream users.
- Innovative approaches to on-farm water use: Case studies of how efficient storage and use of water can boost food security. Also, what can we learn from cases where water interventions fail, especially in the Limpopo basin?
- How researchers are tapping into local knowledge about rainwater management in the Volta Basin (Togo, Burkina Faso, Cote d´Ivoire, Ghana, Mali and Benin) and sharing effective rainwater management strategies through “innovation platforms”.
- The cultural role of water in communities and the importance of listening to communities: The case study of how local communities are being heard via a participatory video project in Ethiopia.
By Marina Joubert