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Eye on Asia

Food and Water Security

Food and Water Security in Changing Times


Casey Brown University of Massachusetts

Major forces are shaping the evolution of society and the physical environment of Asia at a pace that exceeds our previous experience. These forcings will spawn changes across all aspects of society that we can only partially anticipate. Many have significant implications for water and food security, both positive and negative. Inevitably, change causes conflict, as the norms, policies and assumptions of the past encounter the manifest realities of the present and future. From the standpoint of the planner, an understanding and anticipation of conflicts that will arise due to these transitions may reveal opportunities to mitigate the harmful effects of change. Through selective intervention it may be possible to minimize the extent of environmental and human suffering that otherwise will accompany transitions of the magnitude that are likely. This brief paper will attempt to highlight some of the significant conflicts that may arise as a result of the coming transitions affecting water and food security in Asia. Examples from Asia are used to illustrate potentials and obstacles for addressing such conflicts at three spatial scales, international river basin, urban water supply system and smallholder agriculture. The objective is not to be exhaustive but rather to highlight a framework for planning and developing water policy for achieving water and food security in the 21st century. The future state of water and food security in Asia will be determined by forcings or external drivers (i.e., unaffected by water and food policy planning) that be the source of almost continuous change. Rogers (2012) describes a set of transitions; we make minor modifications to that set which are well described in that document. The first forcing is population growth which causes each of the following forcings to be amplified in significance due to the population size over which change takes place. Even minor alterations can have large consequences at such population scales. The second is growth and change in food demand, which is related to population but also includes the dietary transitions to increasing protein consumption. The third forcing is the growth in the proportion of people who live in urban areas, which increases the pressure on urban infrastructure but also likely decreases pressures on the natural environment in rural areas. The fourth forcing is the great increase in societal wealth which will drive consumption of all goods, but perhaps most notably, food and energy. The manner in which middle class lifestyle is defined will have significant

ramifications for food and water security. The fifth forcing is the increase in societal connectedness due to the penetration of information and communication technology and also the ability of transnational nongovernmental organizations, corporations and international trade to span national boundaries. This connectedness offers opportunities and risks of which we are not yet fully aware. The final forcing is climate change due to increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change projections remain extremely uncertain especially in tropical regions. However, current trends imply a warmer world and rising sea levels, the latter of which will be particularly challenging for a largely coastal region. In many places these forcings will cause deterioration in the ability to provide food and water security. Changes will be needed and change naturally causes conflict between the way things are and the way things will be. From the perspective of water and food, some interesting conflicts can be identified, although there are likely to be far more that we cannot anticipate. One set of conflicts relate to competition for scarce water resources and the consequent increasing marginal value of water. We are used to a world where the marginal value of water is typically near zero; in the future it will be often nonzero and significant. One first such conflict is between urban/municipal water demand and rural/agricultural water demand. Another is the conflict between jurisdictional boundaries, either between nationstates or intra-national subunits (e.g., provinces) for water services. Of course these conflicts occur at present. However, the direction of dominant forcings indicates that such conflicts will become more common in the future. These sets of conflicts are of particular interest because they fall within the sphere of water policy and tools should be available to address them. In this set of conflicts, economic incentives typically align with increasing efficiency and it is a matter of providing the appropriate mechanism for easing the conflict. Some examples of such mechanisms are discussed in the examples below. The next important emerging conflict is that between the statistics of the hydroclimatology that we expect and that which we will experience, and thus a conflict between the expected available water and the actual available water. This is also a current problem that will be exacerbated by the drivers discussed above. Addressing this conflict lies largely within the water policy realm again. Given the irreducible uncertainty associated with climate change and the inability to derive much useful information from current climate model projections, the best policy course is the design of systems and mechanisms for handling climate extremes that have low regrets, such as through option-based approaches. The policies and mechanisms that address the competition for water may be also used to provide the needed flexibility to adapt to changing water conditions, given proper design. Considering the extent

of the expected impacts, developing and putting into practice such mechanisms should be a policy priority and a priority for practical research. There are two more conflicts that will become increasingly important but lack clear remedies. One is the inevitable conflict between water used for direct human needs (and the resulting infrastructure that allows access) and the sustainability of the natural environment, in particular aquatic habitat. And finally there is the conflict between the need and drive for economic efficiency of water use and the need for equity in water distribution. The role of representative government seems vital in such conflicts to ensure all voices have access to information and to the debate for ultimately a society will decide how much it values these very real objectives that remain difficult to quantify. Conflicts may be blessings or curses. They are the gateway through which change proceeds, the medium for transition. The challenge for the water policy planner is to envision these transitions and anticipate these conflicts, and then attempt to provide a policy grease to smooth the transition. The conflicts we describe above are unavoidable. However, one can envision that a degree of human suffering or environmental damage may be avoided through the thoughtful intervention of helpful policy and technology. In certain instances one may additionally attempt to identify the transitions that will ultimately provide benefit to society and attempt to facilitate them, although this author is skeptical of the effectiveness of such an approach. Given the conflicts described in this presentation, how might one facilitate orderly transitions? We focus here on a few themes. Generally, promising interventions will be possible where technology and efficiency intersect with political feasibility. Three illustrative examples of real conflicts and possible policy responses are provided. In each example, role of technology, political feasibility, and the benefits of efficiency are examined. Example 1. Seeking Sustainable Groundwater use in India. The private benefit of groundwater exploitation far exceeds the private cost but not the social cost leading to unsustainable groundwater use. Incentive-based mechanisms such as pigouvian pricing are technically feasible but not political feasible. However, technological advancement in larger farms is leading to higher productivity, increased water use efficiency and more sustainable groundwater use. Social policies are needed to transition inefficient rural smallholder agriculturists to alternative livelihoods.

Example 2. Water Security for Manila - Managing Climate Variability and Inter-sectoral Conflict. Manila faces strong interannual water supply variability related to ENSO. In drought years, priority-based water allocation leads to the denial of irrigation water deliveries to a large irrigation district located in a separate jurisdictional district, leading to conflict and crisis. Option water contracts with the irrigation district combined with reservoir index insurance for the water utility could provide reliable water supply and predictable operational costs while also providing income for agriculturalists in drought years. Example 3. Adaptation to a Changing Climate in the Indus River Basin. The Indus River Basin is the largest single irrigation system in the world but faces challenges related to low productivity agriculture, insufficient infrastructure, intrajurisdictional conflict, groundwater and soil salinity and the effects of climate change. This analysis reviews a series of possible interventions, including increased agricultural productivity, increased conveyance efficiency and additional reservoir storage, as well as the introduction of economic water allocation between water user groups and provinces. The findings indicate economic water allocation may be the most beneficial intervention, and can mitigate the effects of even the most extreme climate scenarios. However, it may be the least technologically and political feasible option. The examples illustrate that economic approaches to resolving water and food security challenges have much theoretic promise but will encounter challenges related to technological and political feasibility that may inhibit their effectiveness. A careful tailoring of the intervention to the special conditions at each location will be necessary to identify a feasible space for solutions.