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 🙂

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 🙂 If you’re interested, read my latest paper for more information:

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Should Water be Priced?

On Thursday I attended the high-level panel on “feeding the billions“. Based on comments by the panelists that were hinting at the importance of “valuing water”, I wanted to get an unequivocal answer to whether or not water pricing was a good approach to manage water scarcity.

2012 Stockholm Water Prize Laureates Seminar. Copyright Patrick Keys, All Rights Reserved.

So, rather than clumsily ramble through a question, I wrote the question out in specific words to try and avoid any weaseling in the responses that I received. It’s not often you have such a high-powered captive audience, and I wanted to make the most of it!

The Question

“There has been a lot of discussion about how food production systems operate in a distorted market. Several people have pointed out that the market needs to allocate food more efficiently and to reduce waste, but cannot do so without a signal of the scarcity of its most valuable input – water. Acknowledging that it will inevitably be a challenge from the human rights dimension, should irrigation water be priced at a nontrivial amount to help manage water, yes or no, and why?”

The Responses

And, here are the video responses in the order of their replies.

Professor Emeritus Tony Allan, Kings College London

Professor Johan Rockström, Stockholm Resilience Centre

Dr. Colin Chartres, Director General, International Water Management Institute

Professor Emerita Rita Colwell, University of Maryland

So interesting to say the least! No consensus, some equivocating, but also some opinions.

Rationing vs. Pricing

Interestingly, the recipient of the Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Innovation award Dr. Aditi Mukherjee approached me afterwards and said that pricing water is simply not possible in many developing countries, i.e. India.
She suggested that rationing can achieve the same scarcity signal to a market as pricing does, but that rationing has the characteristic of being politically feasible whereas pricing is not. Now like the panelists, Dr. Mukherjee is very much an expert in her own discipline. That does not mean I cannot disagree, but I am certainly inclined to trust that what she says is fundamentally true.

A signal of scarcity is needed

Another key point she mentioned was that the discussion of pricing agricultural water for subsistence is perverse when considering the food waste and overconsumption in the developed countries. I agree. But, overconsumption is fueled by ready access to cheap food, which is in turn made cheap because the input water has low or not cost. One way (pricing) or another (rationing), any effort to increase water and food security must provide for the scarcity of water to be signaled to the consumer market.
water storage

Wednesday Re-cap – an Unexpected Presentation

Yesterday was a little different than the previous three days, because rather than only take notes of what others have been saying, I had the opportunity to present some of my own research

The work

In 2009-2010, I spent nine months at the Stockholm Resilience Centre (on a University of Washington sponsored fellowship) modeling the influence of small reservoirs in a small arid basin in the Upper Nakambe basin, on the Volta river, in Burkina Faso. Long story short, I thought I was going to update a model, and I ended up starting from scratch (with an “empty” WEAP model).

An excellent experience, since I learned about spatial averaging of climate data, land use and land cover datasets, how to incorporate small reservoirs into a water resources model, and the methods for how to calibrate and validate a hydrological model. Awesome experience, and I learned a ton. The title of this work was: “Small reservoirs in the Upper Nakambe, and potential trade offs with large water storage”

Dusting things off

Alas, after this process, the model went largely unused, and I moved onto other things. Then, earlier this year my supervisor on the project suggested I pick things up again and add a ‘climate change’ scenario – which was part of the original plan. I did this (using a warmer climate scenario, rather than climate change scenario, for lots of boring reasons that I won’t get into now), and again it sat for a bit, until a….

Surprise talk!

A few days ago, it was suggested that I present my work informally at the Stockholm Environment Institute’s booth at world water week…. So I put together a quick talk and prepared to present things yesterday at 1pm.


Right before the talk was about to start there were a grand total of zero attendants. No pressure! … But also a little disappointing.
Then, low and behold three very special guests serendipitously appeared:
1. Director of Waternet (which is among other things, a scholarship program for African graduate students) who is an expert on water resources … And happens to to be able to translate back and forth between English and French.
2. A representative from DGRE (Direction Générale des Ressources en Eau aka Directorate General of Water Resources; Burkina Faso), and
3. The Incoming administrator of the Nakambe River basin

So… Pretty much the best audience possible.

The director of Waternet translated huge chunks of the talk when the information was not clear from me, and I was able to answer and the specific, and direct questions of the most relevant stakeholder from the region’s management community.


The outcome of this interaction was that my research advisor now has an invitation to get in touch when she is in Burkina this fall, and there is a strong possibility that the work will be incorporated or perhaps expanded to good effect in the region.

An outstanding result from an unexpected presentation.