Bringing science and development together through news and analysis

  • Farming revolution 'route to water security'

[LONDON] Investing in agricultural infrastructure, from roads to fertilisers, will cut water wastage on a scale greater than any other intervention and is the best way to solve the world's water problems, a leading specialist has said.

Colin Chartres, director general of the International Water Management Institute in Sri Lanka, was talking to SciDev.Net to highlight the launch of a book he has co-written with colleague Samyuktha Varma. The book describes a 'six−point plan' for saving the world's water supplies.

The message coincides with SciDev.Net's launch, today, of a Spotlight on Water Security and Climate Change, a collection of feature and opinion articles.

"The most critical thing, and where we can make the biggest inroads, is revitalising agriculture," Chartres told SciDev.Net, pointing out that agriculture uses 70–80 per cent of water in many developing countries.

"As agricultural infrastructure gets more sophisticated, it should lead to better water management," he said.

"I think it is critical that we start investing in infrastructure that is going to help some of the smaller countries really build on their agricultural bases to lift their state of development. There is very good evidence in Sub-Saharan Africa, from a number of small economies, that they are totally dependent initially on agriculture — and their gross domestic product then goes up and down with rainfall in various years over the decades."

Chartres said he was confident that water use in agriculture can be reduced.

"Often there is a combination of factors causing poor crop yields. It may be lack of fertilisers, poor husbandry or agronomy, too much water or too little at the wrong time. There is great potential to improve the way we manage water and manage our crops, to pick up gains we know are quite possible. So that's why I'm optimistic."

Chartres mentioned India, where his institute is encouraging farmers to use surface water irrigation systems to recharge groundwater.

Excess water at the surface is siphoned down to replenish ground water, which is then pumped back up for use as necessary.

"We've already tried this in [Indian state of] Andhra Pradesh during the wet season," said Chartres.

But he said that considerable investment would be required in research and development, and in helping countries develop their agricultural economies.

Research would be the "easy part", Chartres said, citing the plans of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the international group of agricultural research donors, to lift its funding to around US$1.6 billion dollars.

"That, I think, is achievable. But we also need more investment in agricultural infrastructure development in general, and here we are talking about hundreds of billions of dollars."

The six points elaborated in 'Out of water: from abundance to scarcity and how to solve the world's water problems', launched last month (27 August), are: gathering high-quality data about water resources; taking better care of the environment; reforming the governance of water resources; improving how water is used for farming; better managing urban and municipal water demands and including marginalised people in water management.

Link to 'Out of water: from abundance to scarcity and how to solve the world's water problems'