By Edith van Walsum
As I write this blog, Pakistan and China are suffering from serious floods, while Russia reels under drought. Millions of farmers have lost everything. Russia’s ban on exporting grains is already being felt in increasing prices elsewhere: another food crisis in the making? It is clear that we have to learn new and re-learn old ways of managing water in agriculture.
With climate change water is expected to become the most critical natural resource. Much more than an economic resource, it is vital for the survival of every living being and plays a central role in every culture, as demonstrated by stories in the latest issue of Farming Matters magazine. Moreover, water is a finite resource. It is not saved merely by using less of it. It is saved only if it is kept in a recoverable form.
Many years back I met a French missionary in Burkina Faso. His life work involved digging trenches with people in the surrounding villages. Thanks to these trenches there was a regular recharge of groundwater and the wells were filled with water most of the time. The father’s project was less “spectacular” than bigger and more expensive irrigation projects in the area but it proved dependable and sustainable. His message was simple, yet profound: how to get the water into the ground is the problem, not how to get it out.
Anil Agarwal, an Indian environmentalist, argued that our lack of knowledge of nature’s ways is at the core of the environmental crisis. He pointed out that nature uses weak forces rather than concentrated forces to do its work. If we understood the ways of nature, we would shift to weaker sources of energy, like solar, or move to using rainfall, rather than waiting until it is concentrated in rivers and aquifers. “Heavy use of these sources is leading to their overexploitation. In the 21st century, human beings will once again move to weaker water resources like rainfall”, said Agarwal.
Do we need more irrigation to feed the growing world population? Yes, but improved irrigation. Scenarios predict that in 2050 about 50% of the world’s food will have to be produced through expansion and weatherproofing of rainfed agriculture. With increasing over-exploitation of water from concentrated sources, the future lies in weatherproof rainfed systems.
But we also need to find ways to talk about and to distribute water. There are traditional structures for water governance, but do they still funtion or do they need to be modernised? Or will modern structures be imposed? Read all about it in our new issue of Farming Matters: Negotiating the waters.