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Don’t dry up your drip: Finding the opportunities in water scarcity

The theme at this year’s World Water Week is ”water for development”. With the impending adoption of the new Sustainable Development Goals in September, this theme could hardly be more timely. The new global development agenda replacing the Millennium Development Goals signifies a scaled up effort to tackle a multitude of complex, interconnected problems. These goals are more ambitious than any development agenda before them – and water is integral to making them success.

Water is the top opportunity in this year’s Global Opportunity Report. This is no surprise, as it is of fundamental importance for human development, the environment, and economic growth. And big challenges are ahead on this front.

An estimated 768 million people around the globe are lacking a fresh water source. And this is a conservative estimate – some figures are as high as 3.5 billion. Meanwhile, demographic pressures, economic growth, and climate change are putting unprecedented pressure on the vital resource. The demand for water is projected to bypass supply by 40 percent in 20 years’ time. We are already seeing extensive local and regional water stress around the world today because of several interconnected factors. To mention just a few:

• Urbanization: more people are becoming dependent upon scarce local water resources, especially in developing countries
• Climate change: Puts pressure on water supply in several regions
• Poor sanitation and water management: scarce water resources are wasted
• The food-energy-water nexus: Water shares vulnerabilities with agriculture and energy
• Pollution: Groundwater and freshwater sources such as lakes and rivers are threatened by pollution from agriculture, industry, extraction and urban areas, resulting in losses to ecosystem services

These problems especially affect poorer communities, who have to spend their scarce resources and time on getting access to water and are thus held back from changing their own circumstances. However, water scarcity is also having devastating impacts in developed countries, as seen in e.g. California, and the effects are only going to get worse.

Hitting where it helps: Agriculture

One industry that ties together many sources of pollution, bad water management, and responding to climate change is agriculture. Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of total water withdrawals worldwide and approximately 45 percent of food production originates from areas without any water management systems. The sector is the least adept at reusing and reintroducing water. Further, increasing water productivity in agriculture will be vital to securing food supplies in the future. A kilogram of rice takes between 1000 and 3000 liters of waters to produce, while a kilogram of meat takes between 13.000 and 15.000 liters. With two billion more mouths to feed in twenty years’ time, global agriculture is facing a paramount challenge. Humanity’s future depends on the sector’s ability to adapt.

Fortunately, there is huge space for improvement in the agricultural sector. As the 2015 Global Opportunity Report puts forward, there are impactful opportunities in this sector that would address water scarcity in developed countries, while also delivering new opportunities for developing countries.

One such opportunity is drip irrigation, which delivers a range of benefits. First, it reduces water use by 30-70% compared to conventional watering methods such as sprinklers. Second, drip irrigation’s more precise use of water is actually better for plants, as they are only watered when they need it. This prevents soil erosion and nutrient runoff. It also helps control fungal diseases and reduces the risk of wet foliage. Drip irrigation has potential to improve yields by as much as 30 to 200 percent, depending on the crop.

Water management for development

By further improving water management, drop irrigation can have an important impact for developing countries that rely solely on rainwater. With a changing climate, rain fed agriculture – which accounts for 80 percent of global agriculture and 58 percent of the global good basket – is an increasingly risky business. Through better water management, rainwater can be harvested, stored, and used efficiently, multiplying crop yields by a factor of 2 to 4 in some parts of Africa and Asia. Most of these techniques require low capital expenditure and huge improvements can thus be made through awareness campaigns and low-cost government efforts. In more developed areas, technologies such as satellite surveillance and sensors can help direct the water exactly where it needs to go.

To mention just a few of the solutions that are waiting to be implemented:

• Low-Tech Gravity-Powered Irrigation: Netafm cost-effectively increases smallholder farmers’ water efficiency while improving yields and crop quality. A gravity-based drip irrigation system delivers precise quantities of water and nutrients directly to crop root zones, eliminating excessive water consumption.
• Data-Driven Irrigation: The Dacom TerraSen Station is a solar-powered device that collects data regarding current soil moisture conditions, soil temperature, rainfall, and irrigation at several depths. The information is then automatically transmitted to farmers, who receive relevant irrigation advice for all their crops.
• Planting Technology for Deserts: Using only a one-time dose of 15 liters of water, the Groasis Waterboxx can achieve a crop survival rate of over 90 percent in the most water-scarce environments. The box prevents water from evaporating and collects rain and condensation from its surroundings, releasing only 50 ml each day.

The point is this: there is a huge potential for improvement in managing water more wisely, and the innovative solutions are out there. Exactly as the new Sustainable Development Goals reflect, such improvements will benefit developing and developed countries alike and contribute to solving a myriad of today’s and tomorrow’s global problems. Let’s go!

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