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Water Scarcity: A Shared Problem With a World of Solutions

EDIT:  Links to all the Conference presentations can be found on the Columbia Water Center web site.

Columbia scientists and affiliates from four continents came together for the first time last week to discuss global water scarcity, present solutions from their own countries, transfer knowledge and present next steps to scale up current projects. “Improving Rural Water and Livelihood Outcomes,” Columbia Water Center’s flagship project, is conducted in partnership with the PepsiCo Foundation.

Teach a Man to Fish . . .

Columbia Water Center Director Upmanu Lall opened the conference with an alarming overview of the worsening global water scarcity crisis, pointing out that the food security and livelihood of billions are now threatened by unreliable water supplies even as regional droughts push up global food prices. At the same time, water polluted by agriculture leads to widespread health impacts for people and biodiversity.

CWC Director Upmanu Lall and Professor Tanya Heikkila. Photo by Benjamin Preston.

“If you teach a man to fish,” said Lall, “ There will be fewer fish! Unless you engage someone to manage and nurture fish.” Similarly, without wise water management, increased exploitation of water resources is not sustainable.

The Water-Energy-Food Nexus

Vijay Modi followed Lall’s talk with an analysis of the relationship of the “Energy-Water-Food Nexus” to global water scarcity.

“Food water and energy are tightly interconnected,” said Modi, pointing out that irrigation for agriculture was the chief cause of groundwater depletion in much of the world, and a major source of energy consumption as well.

For instance, he said, the amount of electricity used to irrigate one hectare of land in Gujarat, India, would cost $3,000 at New York City electricity prices. Even though the cost of electricity is cheaper in India, such a system is only made possible through huge farmer subsidies from the government. As the groundwater levels fall, the cost in energy and money to pump water grows as well.

The situation is even worse in places like Mali, Modi said, where what little electricity exists comes from limited hydropower resources, which means that farmers must use gasoline or diesel pumps – an even more expensive option.

The Importance of Going Beyond Technical Solutions

One possible avenue for more efficient water use, said Modi, lay in using information technology for “smart metering” of water to increase transparency of consumption and encourage conservation. Similarly, CWC’s innovative tensiometer project, conducted in conjunction with the Punjab Agricultural University, uses an inexpensive soil-moisture measuring device to help farmers irrigate more efficiently.

However, given the role government subsidies play in promoting inefficient water, it was critical, Modi said, to go beyond technical solutions when trying to address water scarcity. CWC’s pilot project in Gujarat, conducted in partnership with the state government, was one example of how technical solutions could be coupled with innovative incentive schemes to support more efficient water use.

Schematic of drip irrigation technology to be applied in Gujarat in conjunction with a new incentive and support program for farmers.

Tanya Heikkila, Associate Professor of the School of Public Affairs, University of Colorado-Denver, echoed the point that technology alone cannot solve the world’s water crisis. According to Heikkila, in order to address water scarcity, one must ask “what kinds of governance adaptations might we need to make solutions viable?” Heikkila’s work on water policy and governance provided an interdisciplinary basis for the Improving Rural Outcomes project.

In addition to Gujarat, the Columbia Water Center’s Brazil infrastructure project provides an example of an approach that integrates social science into water scarcity solutions, by going beyond the initial building of water delivery systems to develop a methodology to provide water to the drought-stricken rural regions of the state of Ceara. This methodology involved not only a technical analysis but also extensive surveys or residents and sociological analysis and community engagement.

Francisco de Assis de Souza Filho, Director of Columbia Water Center Brazil, explained that the success of the municipal planning process (called the PAM) proved that an “integrated planning process can lead to more effective and economical solutions” than a traditional, “build” approach. “One important factor,” that previous approaches often failed to take into account, “was the social capacity of the community.”

Taking Projects to Scale

In its initial stage, the Brazil infrastructure team designed and built infrastructure for two small communities serving several hundred people. As a result of its early success, however, the PAM methodology used to complete the project has already been adopted by 24 municipalities (or counties) in the region, and the state Department of Agrarian Development committed to completing the process for all under-served rural communities.

Developing a scalable method for providing rural water supplies in Brazil.

Similarly, the tensiometer project in Punjab, India, has expanded from 500 to more than 5,000 farmers participating in just one year, with the promise of even more rapid adoption across the state. In its first year, the project saved farmers an average 22.5 percent of their irrigation use per hectare. Based on these numbers the project team estimates that of only two-thirds of Punjab’s rice farmers used the device, it would translate into 1.8 billion cubic meters of water, or $47 million dollars worth of electricity.

Cross Project Learning

While local innovations are scaling up rapidly in their respective regions, the cross-pollination of innovative approaches facilitated by the meeting opened the door for worldwide applications.

For example, Mali’s project team expressed strong interest the development of a customized tensiometer’s to help rice farmers in that country. The Mali portion of the Rural Outcomes project, conducted in partnership with the Millennium Villages Initiative, has focused on increasing farmer incomes through providing more efficient irrigation in two regions. For the next stage of the project, a Columbia Water Center irrigation specialist is designing an even more efficient hybrid irrigation system for the communities—a system that could itself be more widely applied.

Mohamed Bathily, Infrastructure & Irrigation Coordinator MVP Tiby, Mali, speaks about the Columbia Water Center project. Photo by Benjamin Preston.

Similarly, all project teams expressed interest the PAM community engagement process as the basis of a methodology that could be broadly applied in culturally specific contexts.

Customized Solutions, Global Applications

If there was one take-home from the entire conference, it was that solutions to the crisis of water scarcity are both local and global. While the sheer diversity and variability of climate in different parts of the world means that no top-down, one-size panacea for water scarcity exists, the development and integration of locally appropriate technologies, social science and community engagement methodologies offers new hope for leveraging solutions that can truly have a broad and rapid impact.

EDIT:  Links to all the Conference presentations can be found on the Columbia Water Center web site.

Columbia Water Center demonstrates research-based solutions to global freshwater scarcity and climate-related water risks.  Follow Columbia Water Center on Facebook and Twitter

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