Securing enough food for the world's growing population is a key challenge for the future. A team of water specialists based in Sri Lanka have a plan for ensuring strong harvests despite limited water availability.
By the middle of this century, the world's population is expected to grow from the current seven billion to more than nine billion, according to estimates by the United Nations.
"In the next 30 to 40 years we will need to produce some 70 percent more food to feed the world's population. But in many countries there is not enough water to plant such a huge amount of food," says Colin Chartres, director of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI).
The research institute, based in Sri Lanka, has just received the 2012 Stockholm Water Prize. The IWMI, which runs projects in ten African and Asian countries, has come up with strategies to ensure the sustainable use of land and water resources in developing and threshold countries: More effective irrigation systems, easier access to water sources, improved storage and distribution facilities are just some of the recommended measures.
More crops on less land
Colin Chartres sums up the challenge to researchers and water suppliers like this: "In future, we will have to produce more food with less water than we have now. Our aim is to achieve double the crop on half the acreage." In other words, 'more crop per drop,' as the IWMI describes its strategy. Today, more than 70 percent of global water usage literally flows into agriculture. And that needs to be reduced, say the IWMI experts.
At the local level, the Water Institute works closely with non-governmental organizations. "However, to conduct research and implement concrete strategies we depend on support from the respective government," Chartres emphasizes.
Cooperation with Tanzania
An IWMI study carried out in Tanzania, for example, found that 2.5 million people would benefit from redirecting rivers, low-cost water table pumps and the collection of rainwater on terraced fields. The study was financed by the American Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
"We recommended to Tanzania's government that it increase the budget of its agriculture ministry to finance these measures," said the IWMI director.
The government then allotted six million US dollars (4.8 million euros). In addition, a round of discussions with local authorities, scientists and universities should help to ensure that the measures can be sustained over the long term.
Water table management in India
Another example is India, where farmers today tap into the water table with more than 23 million pumps to irrigate their fields. Every year, another million pumps are added. However, this uncoordinated exploitation is exhausting this important resource, says Somasekhar Rao, a water expert with the Asian Development Bank.
IWMI experts have drawn up plans for three states in southern India to use the water table more efficiently. "If they are implemented by the government, then 30 to 40 percent of the Indian population (up to 480 million people) will benefit," Rao estimates.
Sunita Narain, director of the respected Indian environmental organization Centre for Science and Environment, speaks highly of the IWMI. "Countries like India have understood that water is a decisive factor for food security. But the people themselves do not know enough about what should be done to ensure 'more crop per drop' in farming. For that, we need the help of the IWMI, the only research institute worldwide for water management that works on a global scale," says Narain.
The International Water Management Institute was founded in 1984 as one of 15 institutes of the Consultative Group on Agricultural Research (CGIAR). During its early years, the focus was on providing small farmers better methods for irrigation. Today, the IWMI concentrates more on increasing harvests while, at the same time, protecting rivers, bodies of water and wetlands.
Ensuring food security
For the future, Colin Chartres hopes that large food companies support better water management in developing and threshold countries. "If companies would invest to help small farmers become more efficient and produce more, then both sides would have an advantage. The companies could have a dependable supply of raw materials for their food products and farmers would have an assured access to markets and benefit from their bigger harvests," notes Chartres.
The IWMI director sees no conflict of interest between small farmers and agrobusiness. On the contrary, all sides are interested in sustainable production with the appropriate rules and regulations by the governments. Chartres is convinced: "When all the participants work together this will ultimately lead to food security for all."