Home > Blogs > Water and Food Blog > Is the glass half empty or full? Unpacking water scarcity

“The technical solutions are there. But we cannot implement the solutions we have because we don’t know how they work at the local level. We need to focus on the national and sub-national level” -Priyam Shyamsundar

One of the most surprising aspects of the Planet Under Pressure (PUP) conference has been the general agreement that technical solutions alone will not bring about the desired changes needed to address the different problems facing global systems.

Many leading scientists at the conference this week have called for more ‘dialogue’, more collective action and collaboration. Likewise, they have called for a radical reform of institutions. In her presentation on options for increased planetary stewardship, Georgina Mace showed that purely technical interventions hold the highest risk with least potential rewards.

This emerging consensus echoes the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF)’s program message, which emphasizes the need to improve water productivity in a sustainable and poverty-focused manner through benefit-sharing and institutional reform.

This week at PUP, Simon Cook, the newly appointed leader of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems, presented the findings of CPWF’s Basin Focal Project, a cornerstone project for the program’s message.

The findings, recently published in a book entitled Water, Food and Poverty in River Basins: Defining the Limits, challenge the conventional wisdom that as global population increases the demands on food and water systems will inevitably push river basins over the edge and lead to a major world water crisis.

The results are based on four years (2006-2010) of extensive research on the state of ten of the world’s major river basins. The research stresses four basic messages:

  1. Overall basins are capable of supporting populations in 2050, particularly if productivity of rain-fed systems is increased. However, the path to sustainability depends on appropriate policies and institutions. As Professor Aswis Biswas points out in the book’s preface, “… the world is facing a water crisis not because of physical scarcity of water but because of poor management practices in nearly all countries of the world.”
  2. The study also found opportunities to intensify and improve production while protecting essential environmental services, particularly in rainfed areas. In Africa, it was found that the vast majority of cropland is rainfed and only about four percent of available water is captured for crops and livestock. The CPWF’s Nile Basin work in Ethiopia is focused on rainwater management strategies.
  3. Technical solutions need institutional support. Water institutions that are completely fragmented need to be  radically reformed. The study found water-related conflicts will continue if particular issues like food security and energy production are considered in isolation from one another. In most areas there is a complete fragmentation of how river basins are managed amongst different actors and even countries where the water needs of different sectors – agriculture, industry, environment and mining – are considered separately rather than as interrelated and interdependent.
  4. Likewise, policy needs to take into account all the different ways that water basins are used, including how fish and livestock figure into local livelihoods and diets. For example, the researchers found that in the Niger basin, freshwater fisheries support 900,000 people, while 40 million people in the Mekong depend on fisheries for at least part of the year. In the Nile, researchers note that almost half of the water in the basin flows through livestock systems.

The researchers recommend the establishment of policies that promote collaborative behavior, and support sharing of benefits and risks. CPWF is focusing on benefit sharing mechanisms in the Andes Systems of River basins, where there are numerous clashes between various sectors vying for water resources.

These approaches will be integrated into the recently launched CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems, which is led by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). The program aims to address some of the world’s most pressing problems related to boosting food production and improving livelihoods, whilst simultaneously protecting the environment.  The focus is on the following areas: irrigation, rainfed agriculture, river basin management, resource use and recovery, and information.

As the CRP5′s new director Simon Cook concluded, “This new program will not address these areas separately, but in an integrated manner to ensure we are having real impact on how natural resource are managed”.