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: http://goo.gl/lMghb

Continue reading

The QANAT: August 1 – 25

What is The QANAT? A weekly digest of water security highlights. If you have suggestions for next week’s QANAT let me know! The QANAT is named after an ancient water supply system.

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FOOD AND WATER SECURITY

This Qanat is going to focus on a few interesting articles from the last month that are related to food security in a time of global change.

This focus comes from the fact that I will be a Junior Rapporteur at the Stockholm World Water Week, focusing on “Good Governance of Water and Food.” To follow World Water Week posts on Twitter, search for #wwweek – and for the junior rapporteur feed add #Jrap to your search.

Farm in the Sinai peninsula, Copyright Pat Keys 2011, All Rights Reserved

“Amid a devastating drought, does it still make sense to use corn for fuel?” Washington Post (July 31, 2012)

Meat and poultry producers get hit especially hard when the price of corn and animal feed rises. Many livestock producers have to respond by culling their herds to stem losses. In the short term, that leads to a drop in meat prices, which squeezes the industry’s profits further. Only after a delay do meat and poultry prices start to leap upward.

    • Pat’s thoughts: It never made sense to me to make fuel out of food, and the subsidies that are in place that currently distort the market lead to both perverse consequences and incentives. I understand that the market is complicated, but given the overwhelming data suggesting that in the future there will be an inability to grow enough food for future populations, that using arable land and food crops for fuel seems like a mis-allocation of resources. Additionally, given the dubious affect of biofuels on reducing carbon emissions I fail to see the purpose of using corn for biofuels, aside from providing further artificial stability for corn farmers.

“Urbanization and Climate Change” Global Trends 2030 (August 24, 2012)

By 2030, six of out every ten people will live in cities; by 2050, this number will increase to roughly 70 percent of the global population (or 6 billion). By 2030, roughly 450 million people may be living in megacities. The pressures of population growth and urbanization on megacities and their infrastructure may prove quite problematic, particularly as competition for scarce natural resources becomes more intense. For instance, cities account for 70 percent of global energy use.

    • Pat’s thoughts: “Urban resource security” is going to be a buzz word of the coming decades, as urban populations, and their consumption patterns, swell. Understanding the types of food being consumed, and the origin of that food, will be absolutely critical to urban sustainability.

“One man’s future is another man’s present: Farms of the Future hits Tanzania” Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security – CGIAR (August 2, 2012)

…Rosalia got the chance to participate in the first farmer-to-farmer exchange visit to Mbinga and several other analogue learning sites en route to see exactly what she might expect from the future, and, better yet, to learn how farmers there are already coping with their climate.

    • Pat’s thoughts: This is an extraordinary example of ‘South-South’ knowledge transfer and climate change planning foresight. Furthermore, the inclusion of female farmers is critical to the longterm viability of any educational effort, given the demonstrated critical importance of women in sustainability efforts – especially in the developing world. It is ironic that they highlight female farmers, and yet the title is refers to “men.”

“Southeast Asia’s rice insulates region from food crisis” VOXXI (August 2, 2012)

But Thailand’s warehouses are practically bursting thanks to a fluke of populist politics. To secure votes in rice country, Thailand’s ruling party has vowed to buy every grain farmers can harvest for up to 50 percent above the market rate.

    • Pat’s thoughts: This article makes it sound like rice will be a valuable crop in the future and will provide some sort of regional immunity to food shortages. However, this quote makes it clear that the mitigating influence of rice on regional food shortage is more due to human influences (populist politics) than climatic influences (drought or flooding). I do think that rice will be an excellent buffer in the future against failures of other crops, in that rice is irrigated where the failed corn harvests are rainfed. Likewise, the fact that “rice baskets” are predominantly in a very different part of the world compared to “corn baskets” and “wheat baskets” (“breadbaskets” doesn’t really seem appropriate, given rice is used primarily for… rice – not bread).

Why another water blog?

I was astonished when I searched “water security” in google, and didn’t come across a blog of the same title.  Granted many useful website pop up (including FAO, UNESCO, EPA), but nothing in the form of a digest that keeps track of all things water security.

So, in the absence of a suitable blog I’m making one to fill that gap.   It is my hope that this blog can ultimately be of similar value as many other well known waterwonk blogs, such as WaterWired, Aquafornia, WaterSIS, and Chance of Rain.  You can follow the posts of this blog on Twitter (twitter name: watersecurity), or just come back every now and then to see a new post.

What’s with the Banner pic Pat?

Regional, National, and International security are all founded upon the consistent and reliable functioning of the natural environment, specifically access to water resources and all of the benefits water provides for society including drinking, sanitation, transport, and food production.

Most of the largest watersheds in the world are transboundary in nature, and as a result, form the basis for either international conflict or cooperation.  I am particularly fascinated by the huge diversity of issues and actors in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Groundwater, surface water, atmospheric moisture, and even virtual water all coalesce into a complex and seemingly intractable hydrologic network,that underlies a similarly complex geopolitical landscape.

The blog’s content will not be limited to water & security issues in the MENA region, but its likely that they will feature relatively prominently.