Sustainability at core of water policy talks

The challenge of feeding a growing and changing planet begins with water and follows a roadmap of international partnerships that lead to global investments.

February 9, 2016

As many as 1.5 million people abandoned their farming communities. They migrated to urban areas, where resources soon evaporated. The government failed to address the suffering. A years-long war ensued, along with a mass exodus. The conflict that would forever change Syria was triggered by a five-year drought, according to both Uri Shani, advisor for the Israeli Water Authority, and Charles Iceland, aqueduct director for the World Resources Institute, who spoke on the case of Syria at the World Food Center's Water Policy for Food Security Global Conference.

""We're seeing instances of global protest tied to food prices in 2008, from people seeing up to 50 percent of their take-home income going to food and who can't afford to feed their families," added Iceland in his presentation.

California, with its ongoing four-year drought, is not unique in its water challenges for food. Lessons learned here are adopted globally. At the agricultural heart of California, UC Davis has been investing in water and food science, serving as the optimal location for the World Food Center and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) to cohost the conference, held in October 2015. Faculty members, researchers, national and international policymakers and members of nongovernmental organizations convened here to address the diverse policy challenges that threaten global water security.

Water challenges from the California panel
  • $2.74 billion and 21,000 jobs: drought costs to California
  • $1,500/acre ft.: price of water in some markets in 2014
  • 75 feet in the last 10 years: falling water tables in the San Joaquin Valley
  • 20-25 percent: snowpack lost with each additional degree of global warming 65 percent: snow loss in the Sierras by 2100

All water problems are local, just like politics

“Welcome to California, the perfect water system to demonstrate all of the impacts of climate change,” said Thomas Harter, a UC Davis professor and Cooperative Extension specialist, in his presentation for the California panel.

Building resistance to droughts in the food system is a balancing act, said Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture and World Food Center board member Karen Ross in her opening remarks. Economic decisions in the state must be met with the environmental impacts and the assurance of clean water for all, she said, adding that every effort must bridge the gap between scientists, policymakers and the public.

“We talk about integrated resource management,” said Ross. “But it’s difficult to get out of our silos and work together in a new way.”

Scaling the focus down to the local system, Congressman Bill Dodd pointed out that balancing food production and sustainability is an increasingly challenging task for municipalities: “The drought has made every action that we make on water policy in Sacramento even more critical.”

The list was long. A drought like this in a state where hundreds of agencies and small governments regulate the water draws new issues to the surface each month. Ellen Hanak, director of the Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California, said the progress California has made is rooted in short-term solutions and, inevitably, legal and political battles and difficult trade-offs will arise.

Many farmers in the state still flood irrigate their fields, since the economic incentives to be more efficient with their resources are lagging, said Vernon Crowder, a senior vice president at Rabobank. With climate change events like the drought, said Crowder, less of the pressure should be on the farmers, since planning for 40-50 years into the future is a high order for one farmer. The private sector, meanwhile, is looking only 20 years out. Academic and public leaders, as in those attending the conference, should be directing these efforts.

Water challenges around the world
  • For every one degree of warming, another 7 percent of the population experiences a 20 percent decline in water availability
  • 30-40 percent of the population is already exposed to water shortages
  • 20 million wells exist in South Asia alone, with nearly half of all groundwater irrigation and 70 percent of all irrigated lands
  • 78 percent of groundwater depletion is used for agriculture

"There is likely no solution to the whole world," said Jan Hopmans, iterating the earlier sentiment of Jay Lund. "Everything is region specific."

Tingju Zhu, a researcher at IFPRI, said technologies need to be adapted to local settings and should go hand in hand with the agricultural extension systems.

According to Richard Damania at the World Bank, in order to ensure that new water projects in developing countries are sustained long after the researchers are gone, the focus must be on reforming the human systems before investing in the infrastructure.

"We can continue fixing the pipes," said Damania. "What we should be trying to do is fix the institutions and the policies that fix the pipes."

Policies are needed that accelerate investment in research and development for agriculture, specifically in high-yielding and stress-resistant crop varieties for developing countries, said Mark Rosegrant, a director of environment and technology at IFPRI. Rosegrant's policy strategy also included promoting complementary efforts and investments, reforming current economic practices and implementing new water policies.

More emphasis on higher-value crops should be combined with economic incentives to reduce the environmental footprint in areas that are overdrafting from groundwater aquifers, said Duncan MacEwan, from ERA Economics.

Collaborating across sectors and pricing water to its true value were two common themes in the conference talks. Karen Villholth, a researcher at the International Water Management Institute, elaborated on water pricing, saying that it should include higher costs for "luxury" water-intensive foods, such as cotton and sugar.

"If I have to mention one step that has been above anything, it is raising the water price," said Uri Shani, advisor for the Israel Water Authority, which had increased the country's water tariff by 30 percent. "Usually you would see some water leaking on roads, but after this everything stopped."

In her concluding remarks, Josette Lewis, associate director of the World Food Center, said that the challenges of water for food require a diversity of solutions.

“Policy is a big driver of change in our world, sometimes for the good, sometimes not,” said Lewis. “In order to be successful in connecting research to policy, we really have to work with diverse partners who bring experience and expertise to that pathway for impact.”

Top photo: Uri Shani, advisor for the Israeli Water Authority, talks with an attendee. (UC Davis/Brad Hooker)