Using sustainable agriculture to protect water resources
Publish Date: Sep 06, 2013
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By Danielle Nierenberg

The UN General Assembly declared 2013 the International Year of Water Cooperation. And the theme of this year’s World Water Week, September 1 - 7, is Water Cooperation: Building Partnerships.

This week, scientists, nonprofit organisations and policy makers all over the world convene at the Stockholm International Water Institute in Sweden to discuss new research and developments in water conservation – and most importantly, what needs to be done to ensure the protection of one of Earth’s most valuable resources for future generations.

The planet’s entire supply of freshwater that can be used by humans and ecosystems amounts to approximately 200,000 cubed kilometers, or less than one percent of all freshwater resources. Unfortunately, humans are using these limited resources faster than they can be replenished.

According to the UN World Water Development Report (WWDR), the resources of approximately three and a half Earths would be required to maintain the consumption habits of the average European or North American to keep up with population growth.

The Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition (BCFN) research shows that if everyone in the world followed typically Western consumption patterns, a 75% increase in water resources would be necessary to sustain them. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that two thirds of the world’s population will be living in areas with water scarcity by 2025.

 According to the most recent estimates by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) for Water Supply and Sanitation, 768 million people do not have access to clean water, and two and a half billion people do not have access to adequate sanitation facilities.

Conserving the planet’s water resources and ensuring global access to clean water, while preparing for a global population of nine billion by the year 2050, is a cause for concern for eaters, farmers, and governments all over the world.

Access to clean water is also crucial for farmers. Crops that are nourished with contaminated water can carry dangerous pollutants, such mercury and even arsenic, which can inhibit crop growth and potentially sicken people who consume the crops. Unfortunately, agriculture is not only a primary contributor to global water use – approximately 70% of the world’s water use is concentrated in farming – but also to water contamination.

UN Water estimates that the food sector contributes 40% of organic water pollutants in industrialised countries, and 54% in developing countries.

There are already several low-cost, simple innovations that are available to households in areas with limited access to clean water. For example, SODIS is a method of solar water purification by which untreated water is placed in transparent bottles and heated and disinfected by UV rays. Charcoal filters and biosand filters can also remove impurities and pathogens from water.

Building infrastructure for communities

Giving communities the means to access water for personal consumption and for agriculture is a crucial step in global development. In Niger, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) has constructed solar drip irrigation systems for market gardens.

Their model has been replicated by other organisations, such as the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF), which implemented a similar system in a women’s farming cooperative in Benin.

Drilled wells, although expensive to implement, are useful in helping communities access underground aquifers. Governments and nonprofits, such as The Water Project, primarily fund construction of this infrastructure, but there are also opportunities for the private sector to contribute. For example, People Water is a for-profit company, and its Drop for Drop programme puts money from bottled water sales toward building and maintaining drilled wells in Haiti, India, and other developing regions.

Implementing Low-Resource Farming Practices

For centuries, farmers across the world have used traditional methods that conserve water. As population demands on agriculture increase, global agricultural water consumption is expected to increase by 19% by 2050, indicating a need to expand on water-conserving farming methods.

Both new techniques – such as solar-powered drip irrigation methods in Benin – and old – such as zai, an effective form of rainwater harvesting in Burkina Faso, should serve to inform the future of farming.

With research and funding into innovation and infrastructure, access to clean water can be improved on household, community, and national scales.

The writer is the co-Founder of Food Tank: The Food Think Tank

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