Eye on Asia


Looming Food and Water Crisis in Asia
Food and Water Security
Peter Rogers Harvard University and National University of Singapore

Over the past few decades the world has undergone five major global transitions from earlier equilibria matching population to the resource base towards new equilibria requiring new thinking about the nexus of food, water, and energy. The transitions are happening so fast that the training and mindset of most senior managers have long since been overtaken by these equilibrium shifts that the welltried solutions to water management problems that worked in the past are no longer viable. I see five major transitions that make historically based planning now obsolete; the first is the” urban population transition” which has led to the majority of the population now residing in cities; the second is the “nutrition transition” which leads to a new basket of foodstuffs with greatly increased consumption of animal products; the third is the “climate transition” with increasing temperatures and increasing variability in water supplies; fourth is the “agricultural transition” forced upon us because of the huge increases in food demands in the face of reduced resources; and finally, the fifth is the “energy transition” from cheap fossil fuels to renewable energy resources. Coping with any one of these alone would be a major problem, but the transitions are actually happening simultaneously but with differing rates of change. New water leaders will have to be trained to be cognizant of what is going on globally and also on which flexible approaches will enable us to ride along as the transitions unfold. In its Food Security Assessment, the Economic Research Service (US Department of Agriculture, 2012) estimated that overall food security improved between 2011 and 2012, the number of foodinsecure people (the number of people consuming less than a nutritional target of 2,100 calories per day) was estimated to decline by about 12 million, from 814 million. The Asian countries are expected to see a small increase in the number of food-insecure people from 2011 to 2012, accompanied by a 22-percent increase in the distribution gap (the difference between projected food availability and the food needed to increase consumption in food-deficit income groups within individual countries). From 2012–22 the number of food-insecure people in the 76 countries covered by the report is projected to increase by 37 million, or 4.6 percent, much lower than the expected 16.7-percent increase in total population. The distribution gap for Asia is projected to decline by 2.5 percent and the distribution gap by 28 percent. A certain amount of caution should be applied to the reliability of these projections as the consequences of the great 2012 US drought on the global food supply are unfolding daily. In its forecast of global water demand withdrawn (blue water) for all purposes until 2030, the European Environment Agency (2010) forecasts an almost doubling of demand to about 7,000 cubic kilometers under the assumption of no-productivity improvements. Based upon this forecast they predict a 60% gap between the water demand and the increased supply, with a reliability of 90%. Comparable numbers are not available for Asia, but de Fraiture et al. (2007) provide some forecasts from 2000 to 2050 for total (green and blue) irrigation water demands for both South Asia and East Asia. For a pessimistic business-as-usual approach with no productivity increases, the additional water demand almost doubles, and for their preferred forecast the increase lies between 15–19 % over current uses. Given the current pressure on regional water resources there is no way that Asia could feed itself

without major improvements in irrigated agriculture. Even the small increases in water use suggested by the IWMI studies may still be difficult to find.

Key Issues and Challenges
The key issues faced by resource managers over the next few decades are related to coping with the resource constraints and global transitions in a way that is cost effective and sustainable. Unfortunately, these global transitions are going to be experienced more harshly in Asia than elsewhere. Asia will be faced with a monumental increase in urban populations, more than doubling by 2050 and, when coupled with the large increases in demand for higher quality foods, could lead to a more than doubling in the demanded levels of agricultural inputs of water, land, and agricultural chemicals. At the same time, the Asian economies are facing a very uncertain climate which may lead to a much more variable rainfall both within and between seasons. This means much more attention will need be devoted to storage of water and subsequent food production. To underscore this concern the United Nations, World Water Report 4 (2012) focused entirely on managing water under uncertainty and risk. The energy transition also implies that providing the increased energy inputs to food production will be increasingly more expensive as the era of cheap petroleum ends and the Asians are forced to rely upon less reliable renewable and more expensive energy resources such as wind, solar, and biomassbased fuels. Population size by itself is not the problem; the distribution of food among population groups is a major problem. The total quantity of food produced is also not a problem; but meeting the demands for high quality diets is. Shortage of land and low agricultural productivity are pressing problems which have to be resolved by mechanizing the food production systems. Reducing food supply fluctuations is a major problem requiring modern management of a demand based food chain relying on more efficient agricultural inputs, storage, and transport. A major problem facing Asian countries today is the need to create large numbers of rural jobs. This can be done in part by modernizing agriculture and introducing high value horticultural crops as well as by intensifying multi-season cropping in rural areas in response to new non-grain food demands. In a comprehensive study on food security and climate change, Beddington et al. (2012) elaborate the connections of food, and climate change through agriculture and dietary shifts. They also remind us that agriculture itself is a major contributor to greenhouse gases (Bellarby, et al,. 2008 indicate as much as 17% of the global total), and doubling agricultural production could greatly exacerbate greenhouse gas emissions globally. Guyomard et al. (2011) show the global shifts in diet leading to large increases in animal products as Asians become wealthier and consume more calories in their diets. According to IWMI (2009) Asia currently has 70% of world’s irrigated area with 34% of cultivated land irrigated compared to only 20% in North America. This high percentage of irrigated lands means that most of the easily irrigated lands have already been developed and the major option for improvement will lie in intensifying production on the already irrigated lands. A fair amount of intensification has already taken place; for instance South Asia has been successful in intensifying cereal production which rose by 137% from 1970 to 2007, and land used only rose by 3%. As a result of this recent intensification of land use, IWMI sees little scope for expanding arable land without overstressing the environment. They also report studies showing that the state-built irrigation schemes are seriously under-performing. This is potentially good news as these projects could be ideal places in which to pursue relatively inexpensive land-water-crop intensification.

On the population front, despite declining fertility, by 2050 an extra 1.5 billion people will need to be fed in Asia doubling the current food demand, moreover one half of the total population is expected to be urban by 2030. The wealthier urban dwellers will have new dietary demands for foods which require much more water and other inputs than the traditional grains and require differing irrigation regimes.

For Asia, despite the grim resource situation outlined above, there are many technical hardware and social software development opportunities that could see Asia overcome all of the problems and emerge in an even stronger position by 2050 than it is now. Specific programs such as the following list could help lead the way for Asia to be able to manage a sustainable food production system and to be largely self-sufficient well into the future. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. Mixing horticulture on a substantial scale in areas where the current marketing logistics are in place Try out well-tested precision irrigation technology such as center pivots and drip Create large community-based concessions, initially relying on professional managers Climate-proof new developments by providing drought and flood protection Introduce public/private participation in management of state-built and owned systems. Use marketing and logistic skills of modern agri-business to integrate the local production into regional and global food chains Make major investments to improve crop storage, transport, and marketing to significantly reduce food losses.

This paper has few findings in the traditional sense because of its hortatory intent. Familiar suggestions from previous eras could certainly be helpful. We should take advantage of the billions already invested in non-performing existing irrigation schemes and introduce modern management and maintenance methods to reflect changing food demands and resource availabilities. In doing this we need to look beyond conventional participatory irrigation management transfer recipes to bring in the corporate business sectors to manage the marketing logistics needed for modern agriculture. Expanding capacity and knowledge are always good things to do, but the emphasis should be to always bring in the modern commercial and corporate actors who can best transfer these skills. Funding of fundamental and applied agricultural research is essential. Finally, the focus should be not only on investments in the agricultural sector, many investments in transportation and marketing have multiple impacts outside of the irrigation sector, but have the potential to greatly facilitate the agricultural transition to demand-driven farming. The main thrust of this paper is to emphasize the role the five great global transitions play in making the problems much more difficult to solve. For example, following the IWMI’s 2007 report, feeding Asia by 2050 looks like a fairly straightforward task. Applying the best technologies for irrigation, land use, and management would lead to an orderly transition from where we are today to where we would like to be in 2050. However, if climate changes rapidly, if the cost of energy keeps rising, and if urban populations surge, then the technological solution envisaged by IWMI will not work. In order to deal with simultaneous effects of these transitions, new ways of thinking are needed. Godfray et al.(2010) writing on the challenge of feeding 9 billion people were cautiously optimistic, and concluded; “Any optimism must be tempered by the enormous challenges of making food production sustainable while controlling greenhouse gas

emission and conserving dwindling water supplies, as well as meeting the Millennium Development Goal of ending hunger. (p. 817)” The Beddington commission report (2012) provides us with a direction toward this new thinking when it concludes with an exhortation to identify a “safe space” in the food, climate and water nexus. A “safe place” is the location of global food production which meets our needs well-within the constraints imposed by the five global transitions (this is shown schematically below). The commission report urges the importance of identifying the parameters of this “safe space” and moving from our current globally “unsafe place” to a safer harbor. The suggestion is to identify softer strategies that will keep us away from brittle technological boundaries and which will hedge against the disaster of falling out of the “safe space.”

De Fraiture, C., D. Wichelns, E. Kemp Benedict, J. Rockstrom. 2007. Scenarios on water for food and environment. In Molden (ed): Water for Food, Water for Life: A Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture. London: Earthscan and Colombo: International Water Management Institute. Beddington J, Asaduzzaman M, Fernandez A, Clark M, Guillou M, Jahn M, Erda L, Mamo T, Van Bo N, Nobre CA, Scholes R, Sharma R, Wakhungu J. 2012. Achieving food security in the face of climate change: Final Report, from the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change. CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). Copenhagen, Denmark. Available online at: www.ccafs.cgiar. org/commission. Bellarby,Jessica, Bente Foereid, Astley Hastings, and Pete Smith, Cool Farming: Climate impacts of agriculture and mitigation potential, Greenpeace International, Amsterdam, January 2008. Godfray, H. C. J., et al, Food Security: The Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People, Science 327, 812 (2010). Guyomard, Herve, et al., Eating Patterns and Food Systems: Critical Knowledge Requirements for Policy Design and Implementation, working document prepared for the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change, September, 2011. IWMI and FAO, Revitalizing Asia’s Irrigation: To sustainably meet tomorrow’s food needs, IWMI and FAO, 2009. United Nations, World Water Report 4: Managing Water under Uncertainty and Risk, UNESCO, 2012. US Department of Agriculture. International Food Security Assessment, 2012-2, ERS Report GFA-23, July 2012.

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