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Water Management for Productive, Climate Resilient Food Systems

byAleksander Esmann
onMarch 31, 2023

The webinar “Water Management in Action for Productive, Climate Resilient Food Systems” took place on March 22, 2023, as a side event of the UN 2023 Water Conference. The event explored how irrigation systems in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and North Africa can be scaled sustainably to achieve sustainable water and food security while facing climate change.

The session was hosted by Water and Energy for Food (WE4F) together with the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the European Union (EU), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Government of the Netherlands, the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

WE4F’s work, and this session, focus on bringing together three different communities to achieve sustainable water and food security in the context of climate change: For business and industry, this session shared how to integrate sustainable irrigation practices and water efficiency into their operations and the food value chain.

For the scientific and technological community, the session explored how research institutions and technology developers can contribute to better water management and security by researching basins and surface water to help farmers and businesses improve monitoring and management, while the technology community can help build better irrigation technologies that integrate different water management challenges. And finally, for farmers, this session highlights how the first two communities’ work must be to the benefit of the vulnerable smallholder farmers whose water usage and ability to grow food will be the most affected by climate change.

The first speaker was Etienne Coyette, who works at European Union – International Partnerships (EU-INTPA). She explained the EU’s approach to the water, energy and food nexus. The main goals are establishing sustainable food systems by supporting farmers and providing them with the necessary funding to implement sustainable farming practices such as organic farming or green energy. Another objective is to protect and foster biodiversity. Right now most food systems are unsustainable as they are resource intensive and inefficient. Water use is especially ineffective, which leads to water scarcity issues, which will only continue to intensify in the future.

To address these problems the EU includes all participants of the food chain in its program – from supporting farmers with funding and training to raising awareness for these issues among citizens. A big role in achieving sustainable food systems is the democratization of the access to technologies, knowledge and resources to create opportunities and eradicate inequalities.

Next, Kain Rölofs from WE4F talked about the connection between the climate and the water crisis and how it affects food security in many parts of the world. Nearly half of the world population experiences water scarcity for parts of the year. To successfully solve this issue, the new demands of the water, energy and food nexus must be acknowledged and addressed. These three areas have to be looked at as a connected network to improve efficiency instead of looking at them separately as it was done up until recently. On top of that, players of all three sectors must be made aware of the importance of safe water and how they can contribute to it.

Important steps to improving sustainability in this area are preventing water over extraction and raising awareness among farmers for green energies. Providing farmers and companies with the right information is crucial to eradicate inefficiencies and harmful practices for the environment. For instance, a better understanding of water basins in a region can help farmers and companies adjust their water use to prevent over extraction of the water reserves.

At the conference, Astrid Tveteraas from the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad) announced their partnership with WE4F as well as a donation of $1.5 million to improve food security in Southern, Central and Eastern Africa. This goal shall be achieved by supporting small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) and improving overall productivity. An important step in increasing the output and the efficiency of food production is enabling access to innovative technologies and services for SMEs.

Sweden, through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), also committed $1.5 million to combat water scarcity in the MENA region, which has one of the most precarious water situations in the world. Pia Lindström from Sida emphasized the need for sustainable water use as well as the importance of focusing on women and people at the base of the pyramid (BOP) as they are the important food producers but often overlooked, receiving less training, funding and overall support. Because of this women´s agricultural production is on average 20-30% lower than men´s. Teaching them how to eliminate water inefficiencies and wastage can help to close this gap.

Other problems such as water scarcity and rising energy costs which create difficulties for irrigation will also be addressed in the partnership. Green energies are particularly expensive, making them unattainable for many people, especially women and BOP people, and forcing them to use fossil fuels, which in turn further accelerates climate change. Adjusting innovations to meet the needs of these groups of people and reducing financial barriers can help resolve this issue. But it is equally important to empower these people by giving them opportunities and supporting them as business leaders and employees.

Ku McMahan from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) spoke about the importance of technologies and innovation to scale SMEs, particularly women-owned ones, to accelerate sustainable water use and achieve food security. Vulnerable communities need access to modern technologies to improve their productivity and combat food insecurity. They also need training to understand sustainable technologies and efficient water use, e.g. only irrigating plants at certain times to save water. The covid crisis has also shown the necessity of SMEs being flexible and able to adapt to supply issues or similar problems.

Naga Velpuri from the International Water Management Institute (IMWI) spoke about the possibilities that data offers to improve efficiency and achieve water and food security. This will become increasingly important as scientists predict that until 2050 a food gap of 70% will have to be closed to feed 10 billion people on Earth. Closing this gap will require a lot of water, which will be further exacerbated by climate change. Innovations will be needed to improve water security and resilient food systems.

An important part of advancing development is data. Data-driven solutions have the potential to meet the demands of the growing world population while addressing climate change. But right now, there is only very limited data in Africa which makes it difficult to make the right decisions when it comes to the water, energy and food nexus. To address this issue, IMWI has come up with Water Accounting Plus (WA+), a free platform that uses widely available data such as satellite images to predict the future availability of water and enable improved decision making and sustainable water management.

Julia Weatherhogg from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) on Water, Food and Climate presented the Climate Resilient Food System (CRFS) Alliance, which provides a platform for achieving climate resilient food systems by synergizing efforts across the different actors who are part of the alliance. The platform offers extensive knowledge on various topics related to the water, energy and food nexus, which can help improve efficiency and sustainability.

She then touched upon the importance of water and water efficiency in the food production in reversing climate change. Right now about 10% of the world population lives in countries with high or critical water stress. 70% of all water that is extracted from aquifers, streams and lakes is used for agriculture. At the moment, the use, storage, distribution and treatment of water and wastewater makes up about 10% of total greenhouse gas emissions. Through smart management of water and freshwater ecosystems the same amount of food could be produced while using significantly less water and reducing carbon emissions at the same time.

Many small farmers face challenges to secure water for food production such as having no or insufficient water withdrawal licenses, which prevents them from extracting the full potential of their food production. Other issues are low water availability and high seasonal variations and overlapping water demands of many farmers on a shared water source.

The research initiative Nexus Gains aims at resolving these issues by working at the intersection of food, energy, and water security while preserving affected ecosystems. The initiative collaborates with local partners to find adequate and customized solutions for the particular challenges of a region and it helps with the implementation.

The Solar Power Irrigation System (SPIS) Toolbox is another useful tool which helps farmers meet their water needs with water pumps powered by solar panels.

Johannes Muntau presented Sun4Water, a contribution of the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development to WE4F. The objective of Sun4Water is facilitating access to solar powered irrigation systems for farmers in East and West Africa. These SPIS have the potential to lift 140 million people in Africa out of poverty and hunger by increasing the production of high-quality food and preventing crop failure. On top of that SPIS improve the resilience against climate change while also being a very cost-friendly solution.

Sun4Water aims at providing adequate technical and financial support, training, capacity building and a knowledge network to farmers that will enable them to improve their livelihood. The initiative also aims at advancing women and gender equality, improving sustainable water management as well as implementing climate-friendly measures. Sun4Water wants to promote inclusive access to SPIS as a key enabler to ensure equitable, resilient, and productive rural livelihoods.

The webinar “Water Management in Action for Productive, Climate Resilient Food Systems” highlighted the importance of sustainable water management in achieving sustainable food security while facing climate change. Members of business, scientific, and farming communities came together to share knowledge on irrigation practices, water efficiency, and new technologies that can help create sustainable food systems.

On top of stressing the need for safe water, the session raised awareness for green energy, and the democratization of access to technologies, knowledge, and resources. Another important take-away was that a bigger emphasis must be put on empowering women and people at the base of the pyramid by giving them access to knowledge, technologies and funding. Also, the event resulted in partnerships and donations from organizations like Norad and Sida committed to combat water scarcity in different parts of the world.

The High Atlas Foundation (HAF) aims to address water access challenges for rural schools and communities throughout Morocco. Unhealthy drinking water causes alarmingly high infant mortality – and also results in shorter life spans and reduced energy for earning a livelihood. Further, time spent procuring non-potable water adds to the already substantial burden placed on women and girls, preventing their participation in education.

HAF utilizes a variety of drinking water systems to meet different communal needs. These include digging wells as well as gravity flow systems, which deliver safe drinking water directly from mountain springs and reservoirs to homes. HAF also builds water towers and installs solar pumps to bring water from valleys to villages situated in mountainous areas in a sustainable way. Our partners share important health-related information with communities in order to avoid water-borne illnesses while water-system maintenance and repair techniques are also taught at the grassroots level.

By bringing villages clean drinking water, HAF can reduce infant mortality rates, improve public health conditions, empower women and girls by improving their access to education and transfer skills at the grassroots level while using local materials and building techniques as well as green technologies. HAF is currently seeking partners to assist in restoring traditional water systems with nomadic communities in the Dakhla-Oued Ed-Dahab region.