Floods, droughts and doubts

mitigating agricultureJob, in the book of the Bible he gave his name to, was a whiner’s whiner. His version of Happy Birthday includes the catchy lines “May the day of my birth perish and may God above not care about it; may no light shine on it. May gloom and utter darkness claim it once more.” Not a man to see a glass as half full or half empty, for Job it would be smashed on the floor and slice open your foot. So his words on precipitation are pretty much as you’d expect: “If He holds back the waters, there is drought; if He lets them loose, they devastate the land”.

To be fair, that was in the days before governments played “a key role in developing targeted policy responses to market failures that impede the efficient mitigation and allocation of drought and flood risks”, as the OECD Studies on Water report on Mitigating Droughts and Floods in Agriculture puts it. These responses, plus progress in agricultural methods and technology, mean that in most countries, droughts and floods don’t have the terrible impact on economies these days they’d had since biblical times.

In that respect, it’s interesting to look at the findings of Rudolf Brázdil from Masaryk University, Brno, in the Czech Republic and his colleagues in their study of data going back a thousand years on droughts in the Czech Lands. Nearer modern times you get data from instruments, but the earlier chronicles, diaries, tax data and so on describe a series of issues the OECD report talks about, too, such as competition for water resources and the way different impacts can interact. In the Czech case lack of rainfall is often described as not only damaging crops, but also making it impossible for water mills to grind what the farmers did manage to harvest.

It may seem odd taking Europe as an example when there are so many striking (and tragic) cases elsewhere. But one of the surprises for me in the OECD data was the figure below, showing the number and duration of droughts by continent. Europe is similar to Africa, and North America is worse than both of them. But their levels of resilience and vulnerability to risks, whether drought or flood, are very different. The report provides brief summaries of what these different terms mean: risk is the combination of the probability that something will happen and the impacts if it does; vulnerability is the capacity of a system to cope with a risk or combination of risks; and resilience is the system’s ability to recover after a shock.

Number and duration of droughts


Intuitively, you’d think that for risks you can’t eliminate, reducing vulnerability is the best policy. It’s not so simple: “Physical and economic interdependencies associated with specific characteristics of water imply there can be synergies and trade-offs in vulnerability reductions across water users and uses” says the report. Lord Smith, Chairman of the UK Environment Agency summed it up in February 2014 after particularly bad floods hit England, pointing out that flood defences cost money and the question was how much the taxpayer should be prepared to spend on different places, communities, and livelihoods. Or, as he put it, “this involves tricky issues of policy and priority: town or country, front rooms or farmland?”.

There can even be trade-offs between shorter and longer term vulnerabilities. Increased irrigation could help farmers cope with a drought, but over time groundwater reserves may be used up and the land become damaged irremediably by erosion and over-exploitation.

Fortunately, there are also ways to make everybody better off, by improving the efficiency with which water is used for instance. Given that agriculture accounts for 44% of the groundwater withdrawn in OECD countries, even relatively small changes by farmers could have a significant impact, although if the water allocation system gives them cheap, plentiful water they would have little or no incentive to change their ways of doing things.

Dams and other hydrological infrastructures could help. The Aswan High Dam for example saved Egypt from the impacts of the droughts and floods that provoked so much misery before it was built, but the OECD report argues that big hydrology projects should complement  water policies that try to influence demand rather than replace them. It argues, too, for the need to reconcile environmental, social, and economic objectives (or sustainable development as it’s sometimes called).

Even with all the best policies in place, though, the OECD thinks drought and flood risks are likely to become a growing concern in the future for three reasons: increased population and associated rising demand for food, feed, fibre, and energy in the context of rising competition for water resources and increasing water-related vulnerability; increased demand for flood protection and mitigation for urban areas; and climate change increasing the frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events.

And the report reminds farmers of the need to look after themselves by taking out insurance and not just wait for help, for as Job so rightly pointed out, “Those who are at ease have contempt for misfortune”.

 Useful links

OECD Studies on Water

OECD work on risk management in agriculture

OECD Conference on the financial management of flood risk, Paris, 12-13 May 2016

OECD work on disaster risk financing


A Californian enigma: Record-high agricultural revenues during the most severe drought in history

Drying wells

Guillaume Gruère, OECD Trade and Agriculture Directorate

Drought in California has been in the headlines frequently these last three years, with startling pictures of empty reservoirs, rivers and canals, wildfires, disappearing snowpack and dry earth. The ongoing drought in the State is believed to be the most severe in the last 500 years.

The drought is having many different effects. After limiting outdoor watering use in cities, the governor has imposed an emergency state-wide reduction of 25% in urban water consumption. The use of water from the Central Valley project, a federal grand canal which links the northern and southern parts of the state, was banned for farm irrigation. Some media reports are asking how soon the Central Valley will turn into a desert; others ask when the population will start to leave the “Golden state”.

Drought monitor

Yet these dramatic effects have not stopped the agricultural sector from growing. Even though large amounts of land were fallowed and there were significant losses in production and agricultural jobs (an estimated direct agricultural revenue loss of $1.5 billion in 2014), figures for 2013 and 2014 show the highest agricultural net income ever recorded in California. The fruit and nut industry, in particular, just like the state’s economy, continues to grow despite a four-year quasi absence of precipitation. Curiously, consumers have not seen any price increase in their food basket and are unlikely to do so.

How is this possible? The response lies underground. Groundwater has allowed high value Californian agriculture to continue thriving. It is estimated that groundwater has replaced 70% of the surface water lost through lack of rain in 2014. The California Central Valley aquifer, serving as a natural reservoir, has been used by farmers to replace unavailable surface water, helping California remain the top agricultural state in the leading agricultural nation, even under extremely high water stress.

Groundwater pumping like this is highly unsustainable; it is drying up the resources California will need in the future to face climate change. A growing body of evidence suggests that groundwater withdrawals largely exceed natural recharge and cause long-term environmental damage. While available data is partial and insufficient for a full diagnosis, satellite and other sources show that the Central California Aquifer is one of the most rapidly depleting aquifers globally.

Intensive pumping of groundwater for irrigation also generates large, increasing, and, in some cases, irreversible environmental damages. Pumping in coastal areas has led to sea water intrusion, making groundwater increasingly saline and difficult to use for irrigators and cities. Pumping in the valley has also compacted aquifers, resulting in a drastic lowering of the land (geologists call this land subsidence). In some areas, the land has gone down by 2m in the last 25 years and 20m in the last 90 years! This has not only damaged infrastructure, houses and canals, but is also probably irreversible, reducing the capacity of aquifers to store water in the future. A 2014 study even suggested that groundwater pumping has contributed to seasonal uplift of the Sierra Nevada Mountains (by up to 1-3mm) and that it has increased micro-seismic activities around the San Andreas Fault.

So what can we do? Groundwater has long been unregulated and unmonitored in California. Until last year, each landowner could use groundwater under his or her land with little or no constraint. This changed in September 2014 with the introduction of the California Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) which requires the formation of regional groups of users to set up a monitoring and management system to reach sustainable use of groundwater resources. In the absence of action by such local collectives, the state reserves the right to exert its authority.

The recent OECD report, Drying wells, rising stakes: Towards sustainable agricultural groundwater management, shows that California is one among the many semi-arid regions in OECD countries that face a similar situation. Farmers have largely benefited from the development of groundwater irrigation, during what has been called the “silent revolution”. But they have also started to see the effects of intensive pumping as water tables have dropped, rivers and wetlands have dried up (even under rainy conditions), and salinity has intruded into fresh water bodies.

Although groundwater policies have begun to be put in place, many management systems still lack critical components to be fully effective. Information and data monitoring systems for groundwater remain largely insufficient. This is because not enough attention is paid to groundwater despite the fact that it will become even more important as climate change advances. A good management system will comprise regulation, the right economic incentives and collective action – the tripod approach in this figure:Groundwater systemsSome countries do not enforce the regulations they have put in place (resulting in tens of thousands of illegal wells), and other countries even give incentives, such as reduced-price electricity for pumping, which exacerbates the problem.

With its recent reform, California may now be moving in the right direction. While the implementation of SGMA will take time and will be challenging, it is encouraging that more and better information will foster a promising combination of collective management, new regulations and economic instruments. At a minimum, it will help ensure that farmers play an active role in managing this critical resource, rather than simply emptying nature’s “savings”, inducing lasting environmental effects and jeopardising their future. It could also help ensure that this dry region remains a major producer and exporter of a broad range of agricultural products.

Useful links

OECD work on water use in agriculture

Policies to manage agricultural groundwater use, 16 OECD country profiles providing an overview of the national and regional policies to manage groundwater use in agriculture.

Howitt, R.E., MacEwan, D., J. Medellín-Azuara, J. R. Lund, and D. A. Sumner (2015), “Economic Analysis of the 2015 Drought for California Agriculture”, Center for Watershed Sciences, University of California – Davis, Davis, CA, 16 pp.

Pacific Institute (2015) Impacts of California’s Ongoing Drought: Agriculture, Oakland California.

Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics (2015), “The Economics of the Drought for California Food and Agriculture”, Agricultural and Resource Economics Update, Vol 18 (5), University of California.

The second International conference on Groundwater management in agriculture will take place in San Francisco in June 2016.


Diving into empty pools

world water forumToday’s post is by Bill Below of the OECD Directorate for Public Governance and Territorial Development

We humans have a dynamic relationship with the water we depend on. Call it fluid. Indeed, the story of civilisation is a water story. And, we’ve had fairly good success taming and stabilising our supplies of it. Other stories began well and ended badly. A theory posits that the fall of the Roman Empire can be traced in part to the high marginal cost of securing water for its colonies. There have also been unmitigated disasters. The desiccation of the Aral Sea in the 1960s, the failure of China’s Banqiao and Shimantan dams and the ongoing pollution of our precious groundwater reserves are examples.

Thirst has an edgy urgency. It informs the brain in no uncertain terms that the situation must not escalate. Perhaps that’s why when we think about water scarcity, we tend to focus on drinking water (the same water we in the developed world use to water our lawns, clean our clothes, take showers and flush our toilets). But in terms of global usage, drinking water accounts for only 8% of water use, with 22% used by industry and 70% for farming and irrigation. Effective water governance must mediate across a broad set of actors and needs that cut across all economic sectors.

This mediation is critical, for tough times lie ahead. The OECD 2012 Environmental Outlook projected that by 2050, the world’s population will have risen to 9 billion, 4 billions of which will live in severely water-stressed basins. By then, demand for water will have risen by 55% globally, and global nitrogen effluents from wastewater will have grown by 180%. According to the UN, over the last century water use has been growing at more than twice the rate of population increase. UNESCO reports that at the current rate, demand is set to surpass availability as early as 2050.

We can be oddly optimistic when faced with hugely challenging news. Unpleasant choices, novelty, the momentum of the status quo or just wishful thinking can delay necessary action. But even diehard optimists should not expect the present crisis to be solved by reclamation technologies, desalination or eleventh-hour innovations. Not even by rain. In many regions prolonged drought requires substantial precipitation and snowfall over many seasons—a trend that may very well remain elusive. Nor will population growth, a critical stress factor, suddenly abate. This leaves the onus on citizens, the private sector, civil society, governments and political leaders to forge solutions.

Scarcity is the crucible of good governance. Shedding light on what countries are actually doing to manage freshwater and wastewater is the focus of the OECD report “The Governance of Water Regulators.” Independence, accountability, the ability to collect accurate data as well as enforcement of regulations and standards… these qualities are critical if water regulators are to meet present and future challenges.

But there are leaks in the system. Water sources tend to span all forms of boundaries—administrative, geographical and political. Municipalities, regions and cross-border stakeholders must work in unison to ensure efficient, balanced and equitable usage of shared water resources. Surprisingly though, few mechanisms exist for concerted coordination. Nor are top-down solutions adequate to solve many of the local or regional issues of equitable water resource sharing. The OECD report concludes that best practices in water governance favour bottom-up, inclusive decision-making that involves a broad range of protagonists and stakeholders.

Yet, even long-standing, multi-stakeholder agreements are facing pressure. In the southwest United States, the Colorado River Compact comprises a complex web of federal laws, court decisions, compacts, decrees, contracts and regulatory guidelines determining water allocation to seven western states and Mexico. Allotments were defined in the 1920s, a time of relative water abundance at the start of the explosive urban expansion of the last century. Indeed, southern California’s growth was made possible in part by absorbing water surpluses not needed by the other states. Now, with drought and their own growing populations, those states are calling in their chits. Mexico, last served, is also vigorously defending its rights.

Cross border issues bring additional challenges. Approximately 40% of the world’s population lives in river and lake basins that comprise two or more countries. Over 90% of the world’s population lives in countries that share basins. More than 44 countries depend on other countries for over 50% of their renewable water resources. A United Nations convention offers the only global framework for dealing with shared basin disputes, but water rights remain a contentious international issue in many parts.

This is the case in the Tigris and Euphrates, the Nile and other shared river basins where water issues are enmeshed in a number of upstream and downstream disputes mixing sovereign rights, modified water volumes through hydroelectric and other developments, drought and the growing population needs of all riparian neighbours.

The takeaway: drought and population growth create uniquely acute pressures, and in the quest to secure water resources, sovereign, regional, local or sectorial entities will always put their constituencies first.

In the face of scarcity, societies must find new channels to inclusive growth. Better governance towards more efficient use of water will play a big role. Less water-intensive crops need to be promoted along with less wasteful irrigation techniques. Urban water management also must rise to the challenge of growing their economies with less water. The upcoming OECD publication “Water and Cities, Ensuring Sustainable Futures” underlines the necessity of interlinking finance, innovation, urban-rural cooperation and governance in achieving this.

But enforcement of water usage remains challenging. While the use of surface water can be more easily controlled by water authorities, groundwater use is often neither measured nor scrutinized. California, for example, passed its first law limiting groundwater pumping last year. Understanding both surface water and aquifers as a single system is crucial to a meaningful water policy designed to protect against aquifer depletion. As it stands, even developed countries are strangely schizophrenic on this point.

Part of this may be the difficulty of accurately measuring groundwater. New methods based on satellite gravimetry developed by NASA and Jay Famiglietti of the University of California, Irvine, enable remote measurement of groundwater, allowing scientists to gather objective data on regional volumes and depletion. The other dimension may prove thornier: namely, the complexity of water rights. Political, legal and even cultural blowback to attempts to create a more comprehensive, modern and inclusive approach to water rights is guaranteed.

Water governance and meaningful reform are a matter of scale. It requires widening the number of stakeholders in order to limit policy capture by regional or sectorial interests that run counter to goals of inclusiveness and sustainability. That means local interests must link up with regional and even national and transnational governing bodies. This subject is treated in depth in the OECD’s upcoming publication “Stakeholder Engagement for Inclusive Water Governance.” The political complexity can be daunting, and yet this is exactly where evidence-based policy tools and recommendations can make a difference. As accurate information flows in regarding how real-world policies are working, or not, and more precise global scientific data becomes available as to the true, net effect of policies on surface water and aquifer depletion, progress may be possible.

In the absence of adequate and equitable governance arrangements, water scarcity will impose its own organisation, or chaos. As always, the hardest hit will be the planet’s most vulnerable populations. The work of the OECD on water governance focusses on providing evidence-based data on governance arrangements so that government at its various levels may learn from the experience of others.

A drop in the bucket, perhaps, but along with political will and good old human resolve, we might just get the bucket back to sustainable levels.

Useful links

OECD Principles on Water Governance

UNESCO World Water Report, Water and Energy, 2014

OECD at the 7th World Water Forum in Daegu & Gyeongbuk, Republic of Korea

OECD Water Governance Initiative at the 7th World Water Forum

The Governance of Water Regulators

Water and Cities, Ensuring Sustainable Futures

Stakeholder Engagement for Inclusive Water Governance


Dying for a drink

Rain, rain, please come back

Imagine a mile-wide lake evaporating so quickly that shellfish dry and shrivel inside their shells. That’s what happened in Damoguzhen in south-west China over the past few months.

A drought affecting all of south-east Asia is sucking the water from rivers, lakes, streams and wetlands, destroying crops, reducing the output of hydroelectric powerplants and threatening the livelihoods of millions of people.

The drought is causing political tensions too, first among the various groups competing for what water there is, and second among countries who share resources such as the Mekong river.

 It could be a sign of climate change, and with the post-Copenhagen talks getting off to a difficult start, a timely warning of what could be in store. Yet even without global warming, demographic change and economic growth will place the world’s water supplies under strain.

Over 90% of projected population growth by 2050 (3 billion more people) will be in developing countries, often in regions which already are water scarce. And according to the 2009 UN Water Development Report, in 2030, 47% of the world population will be living in areas of high water stress.

In Africa alone, by 2020, between 75 and 250 million people may experience increased water stress due to climate change. The UN report estimates that 24 to 700 million people could be displaced because of a scarcity of water.

Even today, unsafe water kills more people than all forms of violence, including war. Diarrheal diseases kill 1.8 million people a year, and one child under the age of five dies every 20 seconds from water-related diseases.  

We’ll be discussing sanitation and hygiene in a new OECD Insights on water. Other topics will probably include the amount of investment needed for water-related infrastructure ($772 billion a year in OECD and Brazil, Russia, India and China countries by 2015 to maintain existing infrastructure and finance new projects) as well as water for various uses.

Agriculture uses 70% of the world’s water at present but this could rise. Energy production is a big user too. For example nearly 40% of all freshwater withdrawn in the US goes to produce electricity at thermoelectric power plants.

The book is still in the planning stage, and we’d be happy to hear your ideas and arguments.

Useful links

The OECD Water Programme site has data, articles and a video of OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría talking about water pricing.

World Water Council

The Guardian has a number of videos on drought in Damoguzhen and elsewhere.

Water Aid is an NGO working to improve access to safe water, hygiene and sanitation in the world’s poorest communities.

Water.org is a US-based organisation founded by engineer Gary White and actor Matt Damon, with similar goals to Water Aid.