Curbing Water Scarcity Through Micro Agriculture-Targeted Development

Author: Christopher Daly, Research Intern (Summer 2020), Center for Strategic and International Studies

Today, more than four billion people, nearly two-thirds of the world’s population, live in an area that is water scarce at least one month of the year. This number could increase by an additional 1.6 billion by 2050. More than 1.7 billion people globally live in river basins where water use exceeds recharge, and demand for water has grown by roughly one percent per year for the last twenty years, while the land-areas of wetlands, groundwater tables, and the basins themselves have steadily declined. 37 countries are currently water stressed and, of those, 17 are considered to be under extremely high water stress.

An array of economic and ecological factors contributes to water scarcity, including groundwater and river overdraw, industrial agriculture, lack of infrastructure, and adverse weather events resulting from global heating. Droughts are occurring with increasing frequency around the world and rivers are running dry as glaciers recede and snowpack melts earlier in the year. As ecosystems degrade, the problem of water scarcity increases, as does the stress on existing water infrastructure both natural and manmade.  

22 March 2018 began the UN Decade for Action on Water and Sustainable Development. The objectives of the Decade, which have been set by the UN to coincide with their 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030), focus on “the sustainable development and integrated management of water resources for the achievement of social, economic and environmental objectives and on the implementation and promotion of related programmes and projects.” The Decade also highlights “the importance of promoting efficient water usage at all levels, taking into account the water, food, energy, environment nexus; and stresses the importance of the participation and full involvement of all relevant stakeholders, including women, children, young people, older persons, persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and local communities.” Thus, the agenda puts forth a bold plan to integrate the fights for human rights, responsible environmental stewardship, and resource management under a holistic framework which can be scaled and put into practice globally. Integrated land and water management practices are at the heart of this framework.   

Worldwide, half of all habitable land is used for agriculture, and there are 571 million small-holder farmers spread across 161 countries. These small-holder farmers are often among the first to feel the effects of climate and population-driven water scarcity and are uniquely positioned to play a role in regenerating and maintaining degraded hydrological systems. In no small part, they are able to influence those systems because their farming practices can either make or break them—and engagement with small-holder farmers through education and collaboration initiatives can have tremendous outcomes.

Empowering small-holder farmers through various means creates multiple opportunities: to create jobs, to feed populations, and to renew land and water through targeted stewardship practices. It also presents an answer to the challenge posed by industrial-scale agriculture, which degrades soil and consumes 70 percent of the world’s fresh water (of which 60 percent is wasted as a result of poor irrigation). The majority of the world’s soil resources, notably on farmland, are in “fair” or worse condition. Further, the clearing of forests for industrial agriculture and large-scale animal husbandry creates a vicious cycle which puts even more strain on hydrological systems as evaporation and erosion rates increase.

Currently, only 30 percent of global land remains forested, and at least two-thirds of this land is in a degraded state. The function that forests and grasslands play in the hydrological cycle is extensive, though not widely understood. Besides slowing evaporation and allowing water to percolate down into the soil, respiration by flora increases humidity and lowers surface temperatures. Near rivers, forest cover prevents erosion and sedimentation, keeping water which can serve as a drinking or hydro-energy source clean. Similarly, wetlands preserve coastlines by acting as buffers against storms, protecting settlements and providing shelter for the fish and other marine life on which many coastal economies depend.

The recent UN World Water Development Report has put forward Nature Based Solutions (NBS) as one of our most effective tools in the fight against water scarcity. NBS include re-forestation, eco-friendly and diverse agricultural strategies, and preservation of land which contributes to the continuation or stabilization of existing hydrological systems. Funding for successful NBS programs often comes from multiple sources, including public water funds, private philanthropy, or companies, both local and international, whose products depend on the maintenance of the local water supply.

The European Environmental Agency Report on Water Retention in Forests lays out some of the rationale behind NBS. The report highlights the impact that healthy forests have on surface water, in streams and other bodies, as well as on water levels in soil and groundwater. Its findings include how forests retain excess rainwater, moderating run-off patterns and reducing flood damage and how forests release water during the dry season, mitigating the effects of droughts. The report finds that, “In water-basins where the forest cover is 30%, water retention is 25% higher than in basins where the forest cover is only 10%. In basins where the forest cover is 70%, water retention is 50% higher than in basins where the forest cover is only 10%. The results in this report also confirm that water retention in any sub basin (whether it has 80% forest cover, 50% forest cover, or 30% forest cover) is typically about 25 % greater in summertime than in wintertime.”

These findings can be backed up by anecdotal evidence from around the world. The case of a single woman tending a forest on a half-acre plot of land in Kerala, India, is a good example which circulated online recently. Kerala, a state on the Western coast of India, is a narrow strip of land which slopes dramatically. The state’s groundwater levels have been depleted over the last 30 years thanks to deforestation and destruction of wetland, paddy-land, and laterite hills. The net effect of this has been that rainwater is discharged without percolating into the plateau, taking just three days to flow from its highest point to the ocean. The local authorities now recognize the role that forests play in the hydrologic cycle and have begun preserving “sacred groves” which would otherwise be in danger of being razed for development or agriculture. Such groves are often only a few acres, but one grove of six acres can provide water to roughly four ponds and 40 wells. Those who live near the groves report that they do not face water shortages during the summer, as those who live around deforested zones do.

As the World Water Development Report highlighted, public-private partnerships are likely to be a key component of implementing nature-based solutions. There are several non-governmental organizations operating globally which focus on NBS relating to issues of water scarcity, and one of the most active is The Nature Conservancy (TNC). To date, TNC has helped establish more than 35 water funds worldwide which connect governments, local utilities, private partners, and farmers in order to enhance natural hydrological resilience. TNC has also been actively involved in purchasing ecologically vital lands and turning them into conservation areas for several decades.

The first water fund launched by the Nature Conservancy was located in Quito, Ecuador, and was called Fondo para la Protección del Agua (FONAG). There were six founding members of the fund; Quito’s water company, the Metropolitan Water and Sewerage Company of Quito (EMAAP-Q); The Nature Conservancy, Cerveceria Andina Brewery, The Electric Power Company of Quito (EEQ), The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, and Tesalia (a beverage producer). The fund’s sole purpose is the protection of the Páramos, a high-altitude scrub-wetland which absorbs and releases mist and rainwater in the Ecuadorian mountains. The Páramos forms the head of a watershed which extends into four river basins: the Upper Guayallabamba river basin, the Antisana river basin, the Oyacachi river basin and the Papallacta river basin.

FONAG uses interest and income on its investment portfolio, as well as two percent of Quito’s water charges to cover its expenses and build up its reserves. It enables water management, site surveillance and monitoring, restoration of vegetation cover, environmental education, training in Indigenous Water Resource Management (IWRM), community programs, outreach initiatives, and other forms of capacity building. Rather than cash payments, farmers receive support for watershed protection programs and long-term improvements to their operations. Jobs are also created in eco-tourism, habitat management, and lobbying, deepening community involvement and transforming the preservation work into a local affair.

Similar to FONAG, the Upper Tana-Nairobi Water Fund was established in partnership between TNC, Nairobi City Water & Sewerage Company (NCWSC), Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen), and small-holder farmers; also with a notable pilot contribution of USD $150,000 from the Coca-Cola Foundation. Through those organizations’ contributions an endowment of $7.5 million has been set up, from which interest is used to pay for the fund’s programs. The fund is also sustained through an “at-the-tap” tax on downstream, urban water users (a proposal which was embraced by the city’s 4+ million residents, who were eager to adopt a proposal with the potential to increase water availability). Ninety-five percent of Nairobi’s freshwater supply comes from the Tana River, and hydropower from the river generates 50 percent of the city’s electricity.

The highlands around the Aberdare mountains, where the Tana begins, are home to more than 100,000 small holder farmers who rely on the river for irrigation, and before the fund began its operations the impact of their farming practices was being felt downstream, especially in the sediment which accumulated and settled in reservoirs—reducing both drinking-water storage and power generating capacities—requiring expensive interventions by way of municipal filtration. The problem of sedimentation and erosion was being further exacerbated by the Aberdare mountain area’s “new normal,” a shift in rain patterns thanks to climate change which sees an increase in annual rainfall but over fewer days, creating more intense storms and greater storm runoff.

The solution, reached by TNC and its partners, was to provide a package of land-management techniques, hardware, and outreach to farmers in the Aberdare highlands. The hardware comes in the form of water pans—rainwater-retention ponds which hold 6,000 to 26,000 gallons—which reduce dependence on local streams during the dry season. Farmers excavate the pans, while the fund covers 70 percent of the cost of the pans’ heavy plastic liners. The land management techniques involve the planting of trees and bamboo thickets. The trees provide cover for ground crops along with more diversity in the farmers’ market offering, and the bamboo thickets, planted alongside streams, prevent sedimentation and erosion. Outreach includes the fund conducting surveys of farmers practices and needs via text message, and sending technical advice, as well as broadcasting announcements about market events where new crop types will be distributed. Together, the packages “sell themselves” because they simultaneously increase yield, reliability, and profits. As of 2018, the fund has affected the lives of 25,000 farmers, with plans to reach 50,000 by 2022. 

There are numerous funds and trusts set up around the world to tackle issues of water scarcity and to support various levels of sustainable agriculture, economic empowerment for indigenous and impoverished people, and small businesses. In conjunction with efforts including the Bonn Challenge, which builds on regional efforts such as the Initiative 20×20 in Latin America and the AFR100 African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative , aiming to restore 350 million hectares of degraded ecosystems by 2030,  57 countries, subnational governments and private organizations have committed to bring over 170 million hectares under restoration under the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Corporate partners such as the Coca-Cola Foundation alongside groups like the Environmental Defense Fund, the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development, the Whole Planet Foundation, and others, are already doing this work. What is needed is further investment in such interdisciplinary initiatives by an even more diverse cohort of governments, NGO’s, and private partners.

The challenges to the deployment of these strategies can be both financial and political, as they often require cooperation between multiple stakeholders; including governments, private companies, and individual landowners, and because their success depends on adequate financing, coordination, and local management. These challenges may be compounded by a lack of awareness among policy and business leaders of the hydrological functions of the various ecosystems described in the previous sections.

Now, in the time of Covid-19, the outlines of these challenges are even more distinct. However, the crisis also presents us with a great opportunity to engage with people who were already on precarious footing socially and financially and rapidly expand existing programs as those people seek relief. As public markets have shut down and other sources of income have been severed, water and agricultural funds could serve as a vital lifeline for struggling small-holder farmers and other individuals who could be successful partners once the crisis abates and economies return to normal. Increased investment now will empower communities and create more resilient and fruitful local economies; in terms of the variety and quality of agricultural products, increased social stability as a result of a more reliable water supply, increased jobs in land management and eco-tourism, and other proven benefits. Most importantly, investment can create a springboard on which local and international economies can bounce back better and sooner. Water and land funds should be elevated in the global discourse around development and considered one of the most effective tools available to us in the fight against hunger, thirst, and poverty.

Rethinking the War on Drugs in Colombia

Author: Bo Carlson, Research Intern (Summer 2020), Center for Strategic and International Studies

2016 was a turning point in the two wars that have ravaged the Colombian countryside for over 60 years. The first was a civil war waged between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, for their Spanish initials), a leftist guerrilla group. After a decades-long insurgency, the FARC finally agreed to lay down their arms in exchange for lenient sentencing, reintegration for ex-combatants, and other reforms.[1] The second, which continues to this day in Colombia, is the War on Drugs. Although the government has reduced its use of controversial forced eradication programs in the last few years, its new voluntary crop substitution program appears to be equally ineffective, resulting in more cocaine exports, not less. Colombia should instead embrace an alternative approach that focuses on long-term development goals and a gradual decrease in cocaine production.

Three Approaches to the War on Drugs

Since the 1980s, Colombia has been a major exporter of cocaine.[2] Coca plants, from which drug traffickers derive the key ingredient for cocaine, grow in the periphery of the country.[3] Most coca plants are located on small plots and grown by smallholder farmers, or campesinos, who have few alternative economic opportunities.[4] Drug cartels, left-wing rebels like FARC, and right-wing paramilitary groups often employ these campesinos, with the implicit threat of violence if they fail to comply.

Violence and insecurity peaked in the 1990s, with the city of Medellín gaining the dubious distinction of “murder capital of the world” in 1995.[5] Since then, Medellín and other urban centers have made remarkable improvements and are now far safer than many U.S. cities thanks to private sector investment, public development projects, and high-profile arrests of drug traffickers.[6] However, the periphery of the country continues to suffer from economic underdevelopment, state neglect, and extortion from criminal groups.

To combat drug trafficking, the Colombian government has at least three strategies at its disposal.

  1. Forced Eradication: Military and civilian personnel can destroy crops by plane, drone, or manual fumigation.
  2. Voluntary Eradication: The government can incentivize campesinos to rapidly substitute their coca plants for legal crops as a prerequisite to receiving government benefits.
  3. Alternative Livelihoods: In this approach, inspired by Thailand’s success in combatting illicit crops, the state could invest in human capital, job creation, and security provision in rural communities.[7] Only after at least five years would farmers be expected to eliminate crops.

After choosing one of these three broad approaches, the Colombian government can tailor the strategy to local conditions. Policymakers can also choose to complement any of these strategies with interdiction—arresting traffickers, destroying labs, and stopping shipments en route to transit and destination markets.

The rest of the blog evaluates whether forced eradication has worked in the past and interrogates the consequences of the current voluntary substitution program.  It then turns toward a program of alternative livelihoods, explaining why this is likely to be the most successful of the three strategies. The blog draws upon Vanda Felbab Brown’s January 2020 report, Detoxifying Colombia’s Drug Policy, for the bulk of the analysis, but it also integrates research from the Bogotá-based Fundación Ideas para la Paz and findings from economists Daniel Mejía, Mounu Prem, and Juan F. Vargas.

Has Forced Eradication Worked?

Prior to 2013, forced eradication was the main component of Colombia’s counternarcotics strategy. On the positive side, forced eradication produces visible, rapid reductions in the number of hectares with coca crops. Between 2007 and 2013, during a sustained aerial eradication campaign, both the U.S. government and the United Nations estimate that coca cultivation in Colombia fell by about 50 percent.[8]

However, forced eradication also comes with problems. In many cases criminal groups simply move from drugs into illegal logging, mining, wildlife trafficking, and extortion. Coca is relatively easy to grow, so they may also plant the crop in a new area.[9] Given criminal groups’ adaptability, most of the harm from forced eradication falls on the individual campesino. Aerial spraying of herbicides can also harm neighboring legal plots and radicalize poor farmers. In 2013, then-President Juan Manuel Santos began to decrease the use of aerial eradication, and in 2015, his government ended it completely after a World Health Organization body identified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic.”[10] Manual eradication can prevent harm to bystanders, but it too carries major risks. Colombian police report that between 2001 and 2016, 153 manual eradicators have been killed and 500 injured, mostly by land mines and traps planted by criminal groups.[11]

            The Trump administration has pressured Colombian policymakers to resume aerial spraying using both carrots and sticks. In September 2017, President Trump told his Colombian counterparts that he reserved the right to decertify the country as a cooperating partner in the War on Drugs, unless they agreed to return to eradication.[12] After the Colombian government moved toward resuming fumigation, Trump nearly doubled his request for funding from Congress to go toward counternarcotics in Colombia.[13] Russell Crandall, a former NSC Director for Latin America, has warned of narcotization in the U.S.-Colombia relationship, in which U.S. policymakers allow the War on Drugs to outweigh all other concerns.[14] Under Trump, U.S. policy toward Colombia has taken several steps in that direction.

            In the few examples outside of Colombia where forced eradication has worked to sustainably eliminate illicit crop cultivation, governments have had to first reduce conflict in the area, then establish a strong state presence, and finally be willing to use violent repression against civilians. Vanda Felbab-Brown notes that China in the 1950s, Myanmar in the 1990s and early 2000s, and Vietnam and Laos in the 1980s and 1990s are the only potential success stories, but each has its own limitations. The human rights violations that accompanied these cases make them an undesirable model for Colombia today.[15]

Has Voluntary Substitution Worked?

            During peace negotiations in 2014, the government and FARC delegations publicly agreed to a crop substitution program that would provide material incentives to coca farmers who switched to legal crops.[16] The Comprehensive National Program for the Substitution of Crops for Illicit Use (PNIS, for its initials in Spanish) began operating in 2016, and since then, about 100,000 families have registered. 94 percent of enrollees have complied with their part of the agreement, but nearly 90 percent of them have yet to receive full payment from the government.[17]

            While the government’s crop substitution program was well-intentioned, the design and implementation have led to negative outcomes. After coca cultivation fell between 2007 and 2013, the number of hectares planted has steadily increased, reaching an all-time high in 2019.[18] In addition to the usual bureaucratic obstacles—poor funding, lack of coordination with other development agencies, and inadequate evaluation—the very idea of a crop substitution program created perverse incentives for campesinos.[19] When farmers realized in 2014 that they would be rewarded for eradicating a certain number of hectares, they naturally began to plant more coca crops. When three economists at Colombian universities measured the magnitude of this effect, they found that coca-suitable regions doubled their area devoted to coca plants after the announcement.[20] And even when coca farmers cooperate, they must give up all their income at once and then wait for an inefficient government apparatus to provide them with benefits.[21]

What Are the Prospects for an Alternative Livelihoods Approach in Colombia?

            Given the collateral damage of the forced eradication model and the perverse incentives of the voluntary substitution program, Colombia urgently needs another approach. Fortunately, they can learn from Thailand, which took nearly 30 years to combat illicit crops but now stands out as the most durable case of poppy eradication in the world.[22] In Thailand, government officials started by developing education and healthcare access in rural communities, as well as investing in infrastructure and offering land titles and microcredit.[23] After several years of involvement in these development efforts, farmers would be required to reduce their crops in stages.

            By switching from a substitution-first model to an alternative livelihoods approach, Colombia will not only see a long-term reduction in coca cultivation, but also a more general improvement in the security and wellbeing of rural communities.


            The main obstacle to reform may not be a shortage of technical knowledge, but rather the disconnect between politicians’ short-term interests and the long-term requirements of an alternative livelihoods approach. For that reason, I’ll end the blog with three recommendations to advocacy groups, Colombian politicians, and U.S. diplomats who recognize the need for reform.

  1. Advocacy groups should consider embracing an alternative livelihoods model, rather than defending the current voluntary substitution program. Given the dramatic increase in coca cultivation under PNIS and the perverse incentives at the heart of the program, it is increasingly difficult to argue that the current system is the right one. Instead, advocates should press for more dramatic, long-term change and wait for Colombian leaders who are willing to endorse it.
  2. Colombian reformers should expand the conversation around narcotics to include development and security. By drawing urban voters’ attention to the endemic issues in rural areas, they can increase sympathy for campesinos and forge a consensus in favor of development. They should also highlight the ways in which rural development can benefit urban centers through increased tourism and investor confidence.

Officials in the State Department Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs and the Embassy in Bogotá should resist pressure to narcotize the U.S.-Colombia relationship. When Colombia attracts attention from the White House, Congress, Drug Enforcement Agency, and State Department Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, too often it is because of a sudden increase in cocaine exports. Diplomats who know the region best should push back on demands to immediately halt cocaine production, recognizing that a sustainable counternarcotics approach takes time and there are more issues involved in the U.S.-Colombia partnership than coca production.

[1] Claire Felter and Danielle Renwick, “Backgrounder: Colombia’s Civil Conflict,” Council on Foreign Relations, Jan. 11, 2017,

[2] June S. Beitel and Liana W. Rosen, “Colombia’s Changing Approach to Drug Policy,” Congressional Research Service, Nov. 30, 2017, 1,

[3] Ibid.

[4] Nicholas Casey, “After Decades of War, Colombian Farmers Face a New Test: Peace,” New York Times, July 18, 2017,

[5] Stanley Stewart, “How Medellín Went from Murder Capital to Hipster Holiday Destination,” The Telegraph, Jan. 4, 2018,

[6] Ibid.

[7] Vanda Felbab-Brown, Detoxifying Colombia’s Drug Policy: Colombia’s Counternarcotics Options and Their Impact on Peace and State Building (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, Jan. 2020), 2,

[8] Beitel and Rosen, 2017, 11,

[9] Sophia Sadinsky and Ramón Campos Iriarte, “Broken Promises in Colombia’s Coca Fields,” Open Society Foundations, October 23, 2019,

[10] Since the 2015 WHO report, there have been a number of conflicting studies. For more details, see Ibid., 7; and World Health Organization, IARC Monographs Volume 112: Evaluation of Five Organophosphate Insecticides and Herbicides, March 20, 2015,

[11] Joshua Goodman, “Coca’s Comeback Forces Colombia to Rethink Drug War,” Associated Press, July 18, 2016,’s-comeback-forces-Colombia-to-rethink-drug-war#:~:text=That’s%20an%20area%20twice%20the,largest%20supplier%20of%20the%20drug.

[12] June S. Beitel and Liana W. Rosen, “Colombia’s Changing Approach to Drug Policy,” Congressional Research Service, Nov. 30, 2017, Summary,

[13] “Trump pidió más dinero para Colombia si retoma fumigaciones,” El Especatador, March 12, 2019,

[14] Russell Crandall, “Explicit Narcotization: U.S. Policy Toward Colombia During the Samper Administration,” Latin American Politics and Society vol. 43, no. 3 (Autumn 2001), 95,

[15] Felbab-Brown, 2020, 7,

[16] Daniel Mejía, Mounu Prem, and Juan F. Vargas, “The Rise and Persistence of Illegal Crops: Evidence from a Naïve Policy Announcement,” Social Science Research Network, Oct. 7, 2019,

[17] Felipe Puerta and María Paula Chaparro, “A Death Foretold: Colombia’s Crop Substitution Program,” InSight Crime, April 1, 2019,

[18] Christine Armario, “US report: Colombia coca production still at record high,” Associated Press, March 5, 2020,

[19] Juan Carlos Garzón, Juan David Gélvez, and José Luis Bernal, “En qué va la sustitución de cultivos ilícitos? Desafíos, dilemas actuales y la urgencia de un consenso: Informe 6” Fundación Ideas para la Paz, April 2019, 11-12,

[20] Mejía, Prem, and Vargas, 2019, 3,

[21] Felbab-Brown, 2020, 10,

[22] Ibid., 11.

[23] Ibid., 12.