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 live in an area that is water scarce at least one month of the year, and by the year 2050 this number could increase by an additional 1.6 billion. 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. During that same time, the land-areas of wetlands, groundwater tables, and the river 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.” The agenda puts forth a 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.   

Many of the stakeholders listed above earn their livelihoods from agriculture as “small-holder” farmers or are involved in some way in community or micro-agricultural practice. 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 the 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. For example: the case of a single woman tending a forest on a half-acre plot of land in Kerala, India, recently made the rounds on the internet. Kerala, a state on the Western coast of India, is a narrow strip of land which slopes dramatically from its highest to lowest point. 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.

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