Peter Bakker, World Business Council on Sustainable Development. Copyright Patrick Keys 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Reflections on World Water Week 2012

The 2012 Stockholm World Water Week is now over, and I’ve had a few short days to digest the week’s events. Before my reactions disappear behind my piled-up to-do list, I wanted to share some of my key reflections from the event. For efficiency, I’ve organized things in two categories, with a few bullet points in each. My longer ruminations appear after the summary… Feel free to comment at the bottom of the page. It would be great to see what others thought of the event!

What was missing

  • Clear distinction between “enough food” vs. “food security”
  • Discussion of the most effective inducers of behavioral change
  • Urban governance, and its role in shaping resource consumption

Watch these areas

  • Standardized water footprints
  • Governance of land acquisitions
  • Managing the terrestrial landscapes that sustain rainfall
If you want to read my full thoughts, proceed….
The “Good Governance of Water and Food” rapporteur group.
Copyright Patrick Keys, All Rights Reserved
Read on below…

What was missing

I probably shouldn’t be so presumptuous as to think that I know what was missing from a week-long conference on water and food security, wherein I couldn’t even attend all the sessions – but I’m going to try anyway ūüôā

A better distinction between “enough food for billions” and “food security of billions”

The first is a technocratic issue ( which is more or less solved), and the second is a political economic issue ( which is for far from solved). It would be worthwhile to deploy additional energy on the second issue.

Johan Rockstrom talking about “feeding the billions.”
Copyright Patrick Keys, All Rights Reserved.

The headline of the week may have been (some variation of) “Food shortages could force world into vegetarianism.”¬†Aside from me being frustrated that the article makes such a broad generalization about the scientific findings, its frustrating when an experienced journalist misspells the name of one of the world’s most¬†prominent¬†scientists on water issues (its Malin, not Malik, Falkenmark).

Professor Malin Falkenmark, Stockholm University

The problem with the headline about vegetarianism is that it suggests that the world is one unit, and that somehow resource constraints would affect the world in a more or less uniform way. Barring the emergence of some centralized global government, this won’t happen. Some people will always be able to afford meat and will consume it. In 50 years, some people will probably still eat as much as modern Americans. The question is how are we going to create a world that is food secure for billions. I’m very confident that we will go through multiple advances in crop science, etc. that will allow us to feasibly grow more than enough food for 9 billion people. Imagine 6-10 tonnes of harvest per hectare. I’m 100% a techno-optimist in that regard. I’m not, however, optimistic that we are guaranteed to sort out how to ensure that people are food secure, meaning that the food that is produced can reach people who have the purchasing power to acquire it. Ultimately, “food security of billions” will boil down to the ability of those billions to purchase ¬†what they can’t grow themselves, and that is a complicated issue that was addressed by Malin Falkenmark in her talk(s), but by very few others.

Discussion of the most effective inducers of behavioral change.

There was a great deal of talk about the need for people to “understand the value of water” and for people to stop “over-consuming.” These comments are complicated because they involved the individual decisions of people, that unless compelled by governments, are not required to either value water or consume reasonable amounts of healthy calories. Ultimately, both of these issues require changes in entrenched behaviors – and yet are critical for addressing water scarcity, health issues, food waste, etc.
I really would have liked to see a special session, maybe all-day, on understanding how governments, private entities, etc. induce changes in human behavior. Governments tend to use the strong arm of the law, rather than creative incentives. Private companies on the other hand, have a very well-practiced and nuanced marketing sense, because they have to if they want consumers to purchase their products. Its surprising to me then that Nestle and PepsiCo the two mega-large corporate sponsors/ participants in this year’s World Water Week didn’t collaborate and host a special session on human behavior change, in a very applied practical sense.¬†This is something I would definitely like to see ¬†next year.

Urban governance, and the role it could take in shaping resource consumption.

By 2050, the Earth is projected to be 70% urban. This means that 70% of consumption will take place in the context of cities, with populations under the governing wing of city governments (as well as state/province/federal government). Given that cities are often the clearest provider of day-to-day service to citizens (e.g. water/power utilities are often city-based) and given that food will for the most part be trucked/shipped into cities to feed the populations, then cities have an interesting opportunity to help shape sustainable resource consumption in the future.
Open air market in Hue, Vietnam. Notice the meat consumption?
Copyright Patrick Keys 2012, All Rights Reserved
I would have liked to see a greater focus on the role that urban governments could play on influencing consumption habits (perhaps not in as draconian a fashion as Bloomberg in NYC), possibly by incentivizing the import of vegetables and legumes, and taxing ¬†more heavily the import of unhealthy, heavily processed foods. I know “small-government” folks like to harp on about how the government is a bad chooser of “winners”, which I tend to agree with in the technology sector – but I’m pretty sure the jury is in. Vegetables are the winners, and potato chips are the losers.
Next year maybe a session could be convened on how cities could cooperate to share best practices on setting sustainable urban food policies?

Watch these areas

Standardized water footprints, instead of context-less water footprints 

I’m excited by a “new” effort to develop an international standard method¬†(ISO) for water footprinting assessments. I was at first fascinated by the idea of looking at “embedded water” in products, also known as the virtual water content of a product. A popular quote is 1000 litres of water to make 1 litre of milk, or 16000 litres of water for 1 kilogram of beef. National Geographic has created posters, and World Water Week’s corridors had large displays showing us how much water was required to make various food items and beverages.
However, what does any of that mean? In what context was that beef grown? Are you assuming it was grain fed on a feedlot or grass fed in a country hillside? Are these beef cattle eating grain grown in tropical drylands (e.g. the Sahel in Africa), or temperate rainy areas (i.e. the Pacific Northwest of the USA)?
Those details can make the difference between completely unsustainable and completely sustainable methods of food production. If the ISO standard can serve to improve the transparency and usefulness of the concept of water footprinting, then that would be an important achievement.

Governance of land acquisitions

The disappointing responseby the Deputy Minister for food security from Sierra Leone, gave me pause about the sophistication of their regulatory systems in place for ensuring responsible and sustainable management of land and water resources.
Land grabs session with representatives from various sectors.
Copyright Patrick Keys 2012, All Rights Reserved
Personally I think that governments in land rich nations have an amazing opportunity to set terms for foreign land and water investors-require things such as the following:
1. Mandatory rehabilitation of landscapes post extractive activity (e.g. mine reclamation)
2. Mandatory ecosystem enhancement in lieu of the alterations to existing landscapes
3. Mandatory training of the local workforce so that they may be eligible for local employment opportunities
4. Mandatory investment in development, particularly long-term water, sanitation & hygiene (WaSH) facilities, schools, health clinics, etc.
Governments perhaps out of fear that they may lose the opportunity of investment, have historically not taken advantage of the chance to shape corporate activity in their countries. However it would be interesting if companies began demanding better regulation for themselves. This would help them insured positive returns on investments and demonstrate their genuine willingness to behave sustainably and responsibly.
It could be that companies are merely greenwashing, but I doubt it. The representative from the World Business Council on Sustainable Development given an impassioned plea for better engagement.
Peter Bakker, World Business Council on Sustainable Development
Copyright Patrick Keys 2012, All Rights Reserved
For future and expanded reading check out the new book land grabs, edited by Tony Allan, Keulertz, Suvi Sojamo, and Jeroen Warner.

Managing the terrestrial landscapes that sustain rainfall

A big dimension of the food security discussion at World Water Week was the fact that rainfed agriculture needs to be improved in low-yield regions, with the addition of supplemental irrigation, fertilizer inputs, and appropriate management.
However, the reliability of rainfall in the future is thrown into question by climate change, with increasing variability in the timing and quantity of rainfall. Additionally, since rainfall originates as evaporation, if that evaporation changes (e.g. if a forest is removed), then the rainfall that sustains a given cropped area may become less reliable.
Conceptual diagram of a precipitationshed.
Copyright Patrick Keys 2012, All Rights Reserved.
[Warning, blatant self promotion] This is my PhD work, so I should have an answer for you in about half a decade ūüôā¬†If you’re interested, read my latest paper for more information:¬†

Continue reading

sodra teatern

Tuesday Re-Cap @ World Water Week

Here’s a quick update from today’s events. Another day of unexpected insights, great conversations, and total exhaustion. Wouldn’t have it any other way! The themes highlighted below happened to come up several times throughout the day, which made me think that they were worth sharing…

1. Be provocative – Today during one of the sessions, Ned Breslin¬†activated the audience by challenging the idea that data collection was the ‘answer to the problem’, by saying that we needed to do something with the data puke. This totally caught me off guard, and I think sort of grabbed the audience and shook them a little. I felt bad for the speaker following Ned, since the speaker had to go right back to talking about data… woops! Ned’s comments though set the tone for the rest of the session by really asking people to move beyond patting each other on the back and trying to apply the ideals of open data sourcing with action. Later in the day, the same idea of provocation came up with the “inward investment in agriculture” session,¬†which sought to take a critical eye to the framing of land grabbing as 100% negative. The panel, comprised of African leaders, international NGO reps, European government workers, and international financiers, was in general pro-land deals, insofar as the deals are just, sustainable, and¬†enfranchising. This is¬†not a perspective that is heard lately in the media, and I liked the discourse. Great, new thinking.


2. Everybody knows the value of water…. ?¬†– During the ‘open data’ session this morning, one of the panelists mentioned that everybody knows the value of water, and I balked. This is not the case at all – everybody may need water, and everybody may think they value water, but very few pay a price that reflects its scarcity or criticality for our survival. I challenged the speaker on this point – but time elapsed before we could really discuss things. The same theme emerged later during the ‘inward investment’ session, when I suggested that the discussion of land grabs must be accompanied by the inclusion of water rights, particularly water as a property right (from the David Zetland school of thought). This spun the conversation up in a dynamic way…. right when the panel was ending! Not enough time to really get into water pricing and the granting of water property rights as a vehicle for sustainable water access, but such is life ūüôā


3. Leverage your network, and if you don’t have one, create oneThe past few days I’ve realized the power of Twitter. This sounds silly, but the fact that I have had the opportunity to connect with multiple people (including representatives from the US State Dept., World Bank, and the directors of Water for People, and Circle of Blue) simply because I do something that is freely accessible (that is – tweeting) is pretty phenomenal. I’ve invested a lot of time in blogging, twitter, and other internet-based ‘networks’, but the fact that I’m known as the ‘twitter-guy’ at World Water Week gives me pause. The key reason that I’m known for this is because I decided to do it. Someone else could decide to madly tweet throughout the sessions also (which would be great to have the company!), and they might suddenly be encountering the people and organizations that are shaking things up in the water world.


Tomorrow I hope to keep up the provocation, networking, and engagement – despite my inevitable zombie walk as a result of tonight’s late hour ūüôā

Looking down a qanat.

The QANAT: June 9-15, 2012

What is The QANAT? A weekly digest of highlights (from news websites, blogs, etc.) related to water security, broken up by topic.

The QANAT is named after an ancient water supply system comprised of a series of vertical shafts that drain into a long horizontal tunnel, connecting a mountain aquifer to a community, field, or livestock pond.  Check the wikipedia page for an excellent overview.


Water Plan to take effect by 2012. China Daily  (June 11, 2012)

 A policy featuring the principle of water rights is undergoing a test run in Zhangye, Gansu province. Farmers there are given a water quota based on the scale of the land they are cultivating and the types of plants they grow. If they use less water than they are given, they can trade the quota left for money.

    • Pat’s thoughts:¬†Amazing. I can‚Äôt believe China is leading the charge on this. I‚Äôm very interested to see how well this works.
Smart hand pumps promise cleaner water in Africa. BBC News  (June 8, 2012)

…researchers at Oxford University have developed the idea of using the availability of mobile networks to signal when hand pumps are no longer working. They have built and tested the idea of implanting a mobile data transmitter into the handle of the pump.

    • Pat‚Äôs thoughts: Mechanical training of local community members should be an integral part of this; otherwise there‚Äôs (yet another) bottleneck with the external aid community.
Officials call for action as Bethlehem villages run dry. Ma’an News  (June 11, 2012)

Without water, and without… water rights, there can be no viable or sovereign Palestinian state,” Attili warned.

    • Pat‚Äôs thoughts: True. But there would be very little to stop Palestinians from drilling new wells, if Israel Defense forces were to withdraw from Palestinian lands and functionally eliminate their ability to monitor these activities.


Dams and Politics in Turkey: Utilizing Water, Developing Conflict. Middle East Policy Council  (2012)

On July 11, 2009, the government of Turkey announced the construction of… eleven dams in the Hakkari and Sirnak provinces along the border with Iraq and Iran. These dams are not constructed for hydroelectric power purposes. Neither will they be used for irrigation, since the area is sparsely populated… These additional dams are being constructed as a wall of water, with the sole purpose of making it difficult for PKK guerrilla fighters to penetrate Turkey’s borders.

    • Pat‚Äôs thoughts: Very interesting. If this assertion is true, then this is a blatant use of water infrastructure as primarily a defensive measure. Can anyone think of instances where this is the primary use of the infrastructure?


As water bills rise, utilities struggle for funds. Reuters  (June 12, 2012)

About 85 percent of respondents said average water consumers had little to no understanding of the gap between what they pay and how much it costs to provide water and wastewater services.

    • Pat‚Äôs thoughts: Let prices rise to reflect costs and the consumers will realize how much water is worth.


Land and Rio+20: Protecting an Irreplaceable Resource. IFPRI  (June 13, 2012)

Called¬†land degradation¬†and, in arid and semi-arid regions, desertification, this phenomenon leads to an annual loss of 75 billion tons of fertile¬†soil. ‚ÄúAbout 24 percent of global land area has been affected by land degradation,‚ÄĚ writes IFPRI¬†Senior Researcher Ephraim Nkonya‚Ķ

    • Pat‚Äôs thoughts: This is a sleeping dragon in terms of potential impact on global food supplies. Its definitely an awake dragon for the small-holder farmers throughout currently Africa dealing with this. For more on this, check out David Montgomery‚Äôs ‚ÄúDirt: The Erosion of Civilization‚ÄĚ
Squeezing Africa dry: behind every land grab is a water grab. GRAIN  (June 11, 2012)

Those who have been buying up vast stretches of farmland in recent years, whether they are based in Addis Ababa, Dubai or London, understand that the access to water they gain, often included for free and without restriction, may well be worth more over the long-term, than the land deals themselves.

    • Pat‚Äôs thoughts: Fantastic work here. Henk Hobbelink (GRAIN‚Äôs director) contacted me sometime ago about the issue of land grabs and since then has produced this great piece. I‚Äôll be digging into this over the weekend and expect to share more detailed thoughts with you then.
Jinja, Uganda from Google Earth

Nile Day 2012 and an unexpected Joint Technical Committee

By Patrick Keys

Nile Day 2012

Recently, the Nile basin riparians celebrated the 2012 Nile Day in Jinja, Uganda. Jinja is located on the shores of Lake Victoria, which is considered the source of the White Nile River.

From Google Earth, 2012

An important characteristic of Nile Day celebration was that the three ‘big fish’ in the basin were in attendance (Sudan, Ethiopia, and Egypt). The participation of Egyptian water minister,¬†Mr Hisham Qandil was particularly striking given Egypt’s previous opposition to the Nile Basin Initiative and its output, the Comprehensive Framework Agreement. For full coverage, check out the following articles:

Cooperation, via the joint technical committee

If you read the series on this blog last year, then you may have seen the three possible scenarios that I outlined (1. War on the Nile, 2. White Nile Coalition, 3. Egyptian & Ethiopian Cooperation).

It appears that reality is mirroring the third scenario most closely, with the recent tripartite joint technical committee, under which Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan coordinate an investigation of the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam. The simple fact that this technical committee is comprised of representatives from all three of the users that would be directly impacted by the Grand Renaissance Dam, suggests that the recommendations and results are more likely to be used than if they were produced by a single state.

The 1959 Treaty is dead, and Egypt should take notice

Although there are water lawyers out there that could certainly argue with me as to whether the 1959 treaty is a useful international law, I find it hard to believe that any court or government outside of Egypt or Sudan would publicly recognize this treaty as legitimate, simply because the other riparians were not party to the treaty.

Do you disagree? Great! Explain to me (politely, please), how it is possible that Ethiopia and the other riparians could realistically fit into an amended 1959 agreement? If there is no realistic (and equitable) way to do this, then the 1959 agreement must be tossed out, in favor of something that integrates the modern Nile Basin riparians.

“2012 Treaty on the Equitable Allocation of Nile River waters”

The joint technical committee has the potential to lay the groundwork for an evidence-based technical agreement that satisfies the three big fish in the Nile Basin – Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan. I should be clear that I think there are enormous benefits for creating stronger regional ties between these three nations. Economic integration is one path that could lead out of a strong technical treaty.

Adapted from CIA

Ethiopia provides between 70 and 80% of the total flow of the Nile and has vast hydroelectric potential, Sudan has very large oil resources, and Egypt has well-established (though volatile) institutions.  Using equitable water allocations as a backdoor for broader integration among these three countries, it is possible that a more stable economically integrated Nile region could emerge.

Wait and see

Above all, the official uptake of the results of the tripartite technical committee will signal how the region plans to proceed; whether they aim for technical cooperation, increased regional trade, and potentially greater stability (through economic integration), or whether they close themselves off, limit dialogue and create upstream blocs (Ethiopia plus White Nile riparians) and the downstream “1959 bloc” (Sudan and Egypt).


Egypt & Ethiopia: Nile Cooperation at last?

By Patrick Keys 

UPDATE – “The Dragon and the Nile” exploring China’s role in Nile geopolitics

(This is Part V, of Water Security Blog’s series on post-Mubarak Water Security, the previous posts are: 1. Mubarak’s Fall and the Future of the Nile Basin; 2. Egyptian Water Security vs. Ethiopian Development; 3. Egypt’s Jonglei Canal Gambit; and, 4. Egyptian Saber-rattling and a White Nile Coalition)

This series on Egyptian water security has explored the hydrology, diplomatic relations with upstream riparians, and potential infrastructure changes to White Nile and Blue Nile streamflow. The emphasis has been on the relationship between Egypt and Ethiopia, because as evidenced in the second post in the series, Egypt receives the majority of its Nile streamflow from the Blue Nile. This final post seeks to summarize the series and briefly explore a few potential scenarios for what the future may hold.

What have we learned?

As the upstream riparians of the Nile River are finally planning to use their water, specifically Ethiopia, Egypt’s water security is uncertain. However, as the details of the Millennium Dam are becoming evident, Egypt and Ethiopia have exchanged strong words; but so far, only words. It seems unlikely to me that the nations in the Nile would resort to violence, simply because it would (a) inflame existing instability, and (b) the international repercussions would likely be swift. Furthermore, recent news indicates that Egypt is more willing to cooperate than previously thought.

What is most likely is the continued development of Ethiopian water resources. If this is so, we can expect to see Egypt continuing to pursue alternative/ back-up strategies to ensure that it receives the flow it needs for agriculture, municipal, and industrial purposes.

The perspective of this series has been that of “what are the impacts of X on Egypt’s water security” and relatively scant attention has been paid to “whether or not X is appropriate.” The development of Ethiopian water resources, both for hydropower and agriculture, is to be considered an important step forward towards modernization. Given the ambition and the potential of Ethiopian water resources, important strides could be made towards providing food, energy, and jobs to the current residents of Ethiopia, many of who live in poverty.

Future scenarios

These are speculative scenarios for how Egypt’s water security may proceed, focusing on Egypt’s relationship with Ethiopia.

Scenario 1: War on the Nile

by Kobus Savonije, Picasa

Let it be known that this is considered very unlikely. If armed conflict was to emerge, it would likely begin with Egypt striking first, and would cost Egypt resources as well as potentially contribute to additional instability. Furthermore, if Egypt were to attack, it loses the moral high-ground that it is trying hard to cultivate with the international community, as it has tried to cast itself as somewhat of a  victim.

However, instability can often lead to the emergence of nationalist sentiments, and the seeking for a rallying cause. This fall, assuming democratic elections take place, it is possible that one ore more candidates may try and take advantage of this cause.  Mohamed Elbaradei, a strong contender for the Egyptian Presidency, has already indicated he can use strong language towards Israel, so it should be considered a possibility that he can direct that rhetoric towards other nations which threaten Egyptian interests.

Though I do not think this is likely, this scenario is potentially catastrophic and warrants consideration, if for no other reason, to illustrate what should not be allowed to happen.

Scenario 2: White Nile Coalition

Sudanese and Egyptian flags from “One Step Forward”

This was described in the previous post , regarding a potential collaboration among the White Nile Riparians. This was evidenced by Egyptian officials visiting White Nile nations (Uganda, South Sudan, and Sudan), and the promises made (e.g. South Sudanese development funds) and partnerships forged (e.g. Ugandan “tabling” of ratification of the Entebbe Agreement).

If Egypt successfully forms this White Nile Coalition, as a counter to Ethiopian control of the Blue Nile, then it is likely  that the chief impacts would be in the form of non-violent hostility, such as trade tariffs, trade embargoes, or marginalization in the international community.

Scenario 3: Egyptian & Ethiopian Cooperation

This is rarely suggested in either News reports or more thorough analyses; however, I think there is a strong case to be made for cooperation between Egypt and Ethiopia. Egypt is much richer than Ethiopia, with a more diversified economy. Ethiopia has the potential to store a great deal more water in the Blue Nile, which could have further benefits to downstream nations in terms of preparing for and adapting to changes in streamflow.

Cooperation would also provide an opportunity for Egypt to monitor construction of new dams along the Blue Nile, and play a role in the negotiations of when and how these dams are filled. Hostility would not be likely to produce the same willingness to share this type of information.

Recent news indicates that it is looking increasingly likely that Egypt will pursue a strategy of cooperation. Egyptian Ambassdor to Ethiopia, Tarik Ghoneim, said Thursday: “Everything is on the table.” He says Egypt’s new government wants to start discussions with all nine Nile countries about using waters in the best interest of all.

The long-term impact of this “willingness to negotiate” will be measured by Egypt’s willingness to participate in international treaties, specifically the Entebbe Agreement/Comprehensive Framework Agreement. I predict that Egypt will seek only bilateral cooperation with Ethiopia, and avoid larger agreements because there is more sacrifice associated with a broader agreement.


The final message of this series, though not apparent at first, appears to be a positive one of cooperation. Though the news mentioned above is less than a day old, it suggests that Egypt is seeking a balanced and regionally productive approach to managing transboundary issues.  Rest assured, however, that updates to Egyptian Nile relations will be explored as they arise, here on this blog.

What’s next?

Center pivot irrigation in Sahara, from Wikipedia

In exploring the relationship between Egypt and its dependence on the Nile River, interesting questions have arisen. Among these, what has been interesting to me is the foreign acquisition of land resources for the purposes of food security (or biofuels security). This land acquisition, also known as “land-grabs”, ¬†is taking place quickly, in a less-than-transparent manner, and is concentrated in Africa.¬†Given that large-scale appropriation of water for irrigation can be disastrous for downstream users (see inflows of the Colorado river to Mexico) it is worth exploring the potential impacts of irrigating these land acquisitions relative to changes in streamflow.

This will be the topic of the next series. “Global Land-grabs and Irrigation.” Gathering the necessary information for this will take a bit of time, so please be patient!