Turning groundwater into farmers’ underground insurance against climate change

Robert Akam and Guillaume Gruère, OECD Trade and Agriculture Directorate. Follow the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA)  at #GFFA

Despite the recent drought in California, farms have continued to supply water-intensive crops such as fruits and nuts to consumers both in the US and around the world. Doing so has not always been easy for farmers – or for the environment. Agricultural producers turned to groundwater to irrigate their crops, a change made so intensively that in some parts of the state the ground started sinking because the water table had fallen so much.

The south-western United States is not an isolated case. The green fields of India’s Punjab state hide a similar problem. Groundwater supplies around 60% of India’s water needs for agriculture but the country suffers from depletion and pollution of this water resource in approximately 60% of its states. In Punjab, India’s breadbasket, demand for water already outstrips supply by 38%.

These countries are only examples of a growing global policy challenge. The disruption that climate change poses to water supplies in many parts of the world only increases the importance of correctly managing this resource. Getting groundwater policy right could ensure that farmers have supplies of water to last them through dry periods.

The OECD and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) have organised a panel discussion on groundwater and agriculture at the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA) 2017 on Friday 20 January in Berlin. The speakers will discuss how this vital resource for agriculture around the world can be properly managed to ensure that policy decisions taken today will protection future food production. The outcomes of the discussion will feed into the following day’s GFFA meeting of agriculture ministers where the topic of water and agriculture will be discussed.

Groundwater supplies need to be properly managed because this resource has the potential to provide a reliable, on-demand source of water to irrigate crops, and has become central to agricultural production in a range of countries. Groundwater accounts for over 40% of global irrigation on almost 40% of irrigated land and has become indispensable for agriculture production in many countries. It accounts for half of South Asia’s irrigation and supports two-thirds of grain crops produced in China. OECD countries alone extract an estimated 123.5 km3 of groundwater each year to irrigate semi-arid areas.

This heavy use of groundwater has become unsustainable in many regions. High rates of extraction may boost production today but doing so also causes problems such as land subsidence, salinisation, and other forms of land and water quality degradation.

These knock-on effects may be putting global food security at risk.

Already a number of OECD regions are facing challenges in pumping water out of the ground. A quarter of surveyed irrigating regions in the OECD that use groundwater are seeing a major reduction in well yields as well as significant increases in pumping costs (see Figure 1).

Importantly, there are efforts that policy makers can implement that can ensure that groundwater can continue to feed billions of people around the world.

“You can’t manage what you can’t measure” has become a mantra for groundwater campaigners in California. The same approach must be applied in countries around the world. Greater information needs to be collected about stocks and flows over time – data without which it becomes almost impossible to implement effective management.

And where groundwater stresses are identified, governments must put in places measures that not only reduce water demand, but also take into account how surface and groundwater interact. These measures would go some way to preventing collapses in water supply for agriculture. Excess groundwater demand in Punjab could be curbed by providing information on best practice to farmers and by realigning economic incentives away from electricity and crop subsidies and instead encouraging sustainable irrigation systems.

A locally-focused package of regulatory, economic and collective-action approaches should be introduced in areas of intensive groundwater usage. This package should support a well-defined groundwater entitlement system, incentive efficient resource use and, importantly, involve the local users. In California, the state government introduced the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, under which  local agencies are being formed that will develop regionally-specific and long-term water management programmes with defined sustainability objectives.

Groundwater has the potential to act as a natural insurance mechanism for farmers, so that they are not reliant on surface water to continue to produce in times of drought. This resource would support them in an increasingly volatile climate and allow us to keep producing the food demanded by a growing global population.

Useful links

More information on the GFFA panel discussion can be found here together with a list of the speakers.

The OECD’s review of groundwater policies in agriculture, which includes 16 country profiles, can be found here

An overview of the OECD’s work on water use in agriculture can be found here.

IFPRI’s work on water policy can be found here.

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

Rain doesn’t follow the plow: climate change, agriculture and water

Coming your way soon?
Coming your way soon?

It takes about 1000 cubic metres (m3) of water to produce the food that one person eats in a year, assuming a daily intake of 2800 kilocalories (kcal) per day. This doesn’t include all the food wasted, and the average hides enormous differences in diet. For example, producing 1kg of meat requires between six and twenty times more water than 1kg of cereals, depending on how much feed is converted to flesh, but the 1000m3 per person figure means that global annual needs average over 6000 cubic kilometres of water, almost all of it for crops. Non-food agriculture, notably biofuel crops, adds to the total amount of water used as well. About 85% of the water for agriculture comes from rain stored in the soil, with the rest provided through irrigation.

Water withdrawals from rivers and lakes for irrigation, household and industrial use have doubled in the last 40 years, and in some regions, such as the Middle East and North Africa, humans use 120% of renewable supplies (“mining” groundwater that is not recharged). At a global level, some 1.2 billion people live in basins where the physical scarcity of water is absolute (human water use has surpassed sustainable limits). By 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world population could be under stress conditions, mostly in non-OECD countries.

Farmers have always had to react to changes in rainfall and temperature, but as a new OECD report Climate Change, Water and Agriculture argues, climate change poses challenges on a different scale from the variations that can affect crops and livestock during the course of a season or even a year or two. Future changes in the climate could have significant impacts on land use, commodity production, and where different activities are viable. We can’t forecast exactly what will happen, but history shows us numerous examples of how human actions both influence the environment and are influenced by it.

Today people forced to leave their homes because of drought or some other “natural” disaster are called “environmental refugees”. In 1930s America, they were called Okies, because so many of them were driven from their homes in Oklahoma by the “Dust Bowl” created by a combination of drought and wind that “blew away everything but your debts”. This was a natural disaster in the sense that it came after a series of severe droughts and dust storms hit the US and Canadian prairies from 1930 to 1936. But drought wasn’t unusual in these regions, nor were high winds, and the prairies had resisted similar episodes in the past.

The difference was that a few exceptional periods of higher than average rainfall had encouraged extensive and intensive farming, with no attempt to protect the soil. People believed that “rain follows the plow”. It doesn’t, and when the grasses that held the soil in place and trapped moisture had been ploughed under, the droughts turned the earth to dust that the wind then carried off, often in so-called black blizzards that blotted out the sun and caused drastic, rapid drops in temperature. Millions of acres of farmland were lost, and hundreds of thousands of people made destitute.

Starting in 1933, the US government undertook a massive programme combining investment in soil conservation, education and subsidies to adopt more sustainable practices. It took over a decade for the region to recover but most of the people who left never came back. What can we do today to stop climate change provoking similar catastrophes?

In one sense, the Dust Bowl was easy to deal with because the causes, effects and consequences were identified. Regarding the main linkages between climate change, water and agriculture, however, the OECD book warns that “an important knowledge gap is related to seasonal impacts, extremes and variability of water availability since many current studies focus on annual timescales. There are challenges in comparing regional impact assessments driven by climate (and other) data from widely differing sources, and this may lead to conflicting and potentially misleading results. Significant uncertainties in future hydrological responses to climate change across models also exist.”

That doesn’t mean we have to wait until we’re sure. Climate Change, Water and Agriculture looks at what can be done starting now. Strategies for adapting agricultural water management to climate change need to target five different levels of intervention, and the linkages among them:

  • On-farm: adaptation of water management practices and cropping and livestock systems.
  • Watershed: adaptation of water supply and demand policies in agriculture and with the other water users (urban and industrial) and uses (ecosystems).
  • Risk management: adaptation of risk management systems against droughts and floods.
  • Agricultural policies and markets: adaptation of existing agricultural policies and markets to the changing climate.
  • Interactions between mitigation and adaptation of agricultural water management.

In many areas today, there is no such thing as a “natural” landscape. Thousands of years of farming have selected and encouraged some species, marginalised or eliminated others. The land itself has been altered by ploughing, enclosure, herding and other human interventions. We may feel that we have tamed Nature. Reports like this new one from the OECD remind us of our ignorance and warn us about our arrogance.

Useful links

OECD work on water use in agriculture

OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050: We’re all doomed

Click to see the book on OECD iLibrary

While we were launching the OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050, a German TV crew was heading for the zoo in Limbach-Oberfrohna to film an earless rabbit, announced as the Next Big Thing after Paul the Psychic Octopus and Knut the polar bear cub. But the poor bunny turned out to be luckless too, since the cameraman stood on it and killed it. We shouldn’t try to read too much into this, but we will since it sums up so neatly the message of the latest Outlook: humans are causing serious and in some cases irreversible harm to nature.

The Scottish poet Robert Burns was prompted to think about these things when he destroyed the nest of a field mouse with his plough. The most famous part of To a mouse is when he talks about what can happen to “the best laid schemes of mice and men”. But he also regrets that “man’s dominion/Has broken Nature’s social union” justifying the ill-opinion that other creatures have of us.

One rabbit or mouse more or less may be no big deal, but the Outlook paints a depressing picture of what’s happening to life on Earth under our dominion. Terrestrial biodiversity is projected to decrease by a further 10% by 2050, with significant losses in Asia, Europe and Southern Africa. Globally, mature forest areas are projected to shrink by 13%. About one-third of global freshwater biodiversity has already been lost, and further loss is projected to 2050.

Climate change will replace agriculture as the fastest growing driver of biodiversity loss to 2050. Without a significant change in policies, global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are projected to increase by 50%, primarily due to a 70% growth in energy-related CO2 emissions. Global average temperature is projected to be 3C to 6C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century, exceeding the internationally agreed goal of limiting it to 2 degrees.

The GHG mitigation actions pledged by countries in the 2010 Cancún Agreements at the UN Climate Change Conference will not be enough to prevent the global average temperature from exceeding the 2C threshold, unless very rapid and costly emission reductions are realised after 2020.

Projections like these are probably familiar to most people interested in environmental issues, but other figures in the book may prove more of a shock, notably concerning health. We may be damaging the environment, but it’s killing us. Today, unsafe water kills more people than all forms of violence, but air pollution is set to become the world’s top environmental cause of premature mortality, overtaking dirty water and lack of sanitation. The number of premature deaths from exposure to particulate matter (which leads to respiratory failures) is projected to triple from just over 1 million today to nearly 3.6 million per year in 2050, with most deaths occurring in China and India.

The absolute number of premature deaths from exposure to ground-level ozone will more than double worldwide (from 385,000 to nearly 800,000). More than 40% of the world’s ozone-linked premature deaths in 2050 are expected to occur in China and India. However, OECD countries with their ageing and urbanised populations are likely to have one of the highest rates of premature death from ground-level ozone, second only to India when the figures are adjusted for population size.

The subtitle of the Outlook is “The Consequences of Inaction”, but the authors show that actions to protect the environment make economic sense too. For instance, global carbon pricing sufficient to lower GHG emissions by nearly 70% in 2050 compared to the Baseline scenario and limit GHG concentrations to 450 ppm (the level that keeps warming below 2 degrees) would slow economic growth by only 0.2 percentage points per year on average. The potential cost of inaction on climate change could be as high as 14% of average world consumption per capita.

As the international media noted, the data and trends the report sets out are grim. But the Outlook also proposes policies, and strategies for coordinating them, across all the domains it covers. The question is whether we will take the actions required. Too often we give the impression that we’re like skydivers whose only plan is to jump from the plane and hope they’ll find a parachute somewhere on the way down.

Useful links

OECD Environment Ministerial Meeting 29 March to 30 March 2012

OECD Environment Ministers will meet in Paris under the theme of Making Green Growth Deliver. They will discuss future priorities for action based on the OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050, which makes a strong case for green growth policies.

Where is our water going?

Sunday sees the start of World Water Week and today’s post comes to us from Professor Andrew K. Dragun, an Economist with the Australian Rivers Institute at Griffith University in Brisbane Australia. He is currently editor of the International Journal of Water and the International Journal of Agricultural Resources Governance and Ecology.

Water is emerging as one of the most serious and controversial resource and environmental issues of the twenty first century. Fundamental water shortage, chronic environmental despoliation of water systems and irreversible debilitation of associated land and marine systems looms, while public expenditures on increasing and improving the water supply are increasingly unaffordable.

A great many of the world’s water “markets” are distorted as a consequence of inappropriate incentive–disincentive systems. The observations of Professor R.H Whitebeck, commenting in the Geographical Journal on early irrigation development in California in 1919, that irrigation development “… was occurring at too rapid a rate and at too high a price”, remain as poignant now as they were insightful nearly a hundred years ago. From the experience of the irrigation colonies of the Chaffey Brothers in Northern Victoria to the Central Arizona Project and, the failures of irrigation in the Central Asian republics, the lack of financial viability of irrigation in the absence of substantial public subsidy is a general rule – even in the paragon of efficient trickle irrigation and high cost irrigation water, Israel.

In many cases the drivers of water development have been political expediency and a desire to end food shortages in many poor countries, with little attention to the costs, the benefits and the prices of water.  The inevitable result of the irrigation-led revolution in water development and regulation, seen throughout much of the twentieth century, is that a huge amount of water is being wasted… (more…)

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.