Eye on Asia


Food and Water Security

Towards a renewed framework for action for economic, food and water security
Louise Whiting, Food and Agriculture Organization

This paper is based on the results of the ‘Analysis of Sustainable Water Resource Use in Asia’ project that was implemented by FAO between 2009 and 2012 and funded by the Government of Japan.

Water plays a key role in achieving all the Millennium Development Goals, including hunger reduction, universal education, empowerment of women, improved health, environmental sustainability, and advancing partnerships for development. As population growth and development call for increased allocations of water for cities, agriculture and industries, pressures on, and pollution of, water resources will continue to intensify, leading to tensions, conflicts, and excessive strain on the environment. Demand for water in the Asia-Pacific region is expected to soar in the next 15 years, leading to severe stress on major river and groundwater systems and rising tensions between users and countries over scarce resources. Water scarcity thus affects all social and economic sectors. Currently around 1,444 km3 of freshwater is withdrawn annually for human use in Asia, which is equivalent to about 500 m3 per person per year. This represents 20 percent of the renewable freshwater resources (as opposed to nine percent globally). Agriculture is just one of the many users of water but with 81 percent of water withdrawal in Asia, it is considered the main ‘culprit’ under conditions of local absolute water scarcity (when raw water supplies cannot satisfy all demands). This should be distinguished from a lack of equitable access to water services (including irrigation services), and strict economic scarcity of a good or service. The lack of equitable access to water and related services is a salient feature of most of the regional water problems. Hence, the commonly accepted perception of water scarcity may often have nothing to do with absolute scarcity, but rather signals a socio-economic failure on the part of institutions to regulate public goods, manage assets and deliver services equitably.

Key trends and challenges for water and food security in the region The Asian region is changing fast. Wealthier city dwellers have new dietary demands requiring shifts in agriculture. Growing a range of crops requires a different irrigation regime than that needed to supply water to large areas planted with one or two cereals. Farmers have taken advantage of improved access to markets to diversify their activities and produce higher-value niche crops. The large-scale, centrally managed irrigation schemes, but also the traditional farmer-managed irrigation systems, were not designed to be demand-driven or provide the reliable, flexible and equitable year-round water service that modern farming methods require. Beset with problems of poor design and maintenance, salinity and water logging, many schemes are in decline. Efforts to rehabilitate them have had, at best, mixed results. With poor service provision and lack of effective management, farmers have taken irrigation into their own hands, pumping water from aquifers, rivers and drains and investing in on-farm storage ponds to augment and better control their water supplies. Privately sourced groundwater now represents the bulk of irrigation in large parts of South, East and Southeast Asia. Unregulated development of this ‘atomistic irrigation’ has boosted economic efficiency and productivity, but has resulted in excessive pressure on the groundwater resource. Efforts to reform irrigation schemes by transferring management to farmers have had poor results in terms of improving irrigated agricultural productivity, service to farmers, and the financial resource base for operation and maintenance. These reforms certainly suffered from implementation issues, but many doubt the capacity of irrigation institutions to reform. As water scarcity increasingly becomes the key constraining issue calls for agricultural water use to become more ‘efficient’ prevail. However water conservation policies often rely on erroneous foundations. Local productivity and efficiency gains do not mean that more production will be possible with less water. Increasing efficiency means that consumption is increased as the service more precisely and uniformly matches water needs. Irrigation losses and inefficiency appear high, but most of these losses return to the basin as return flow or aquifer recharge, and can be used downstream or serve environmental or other functions. Irrigation and drainage systems provide water delivery and drainage services to farms and multiple uses, services and functions, including fish farming, domestic and industrial water supply, navigation,

groundwater recharge, flood mitigation, support for biodiversity and micro-climates. Reducing water diversions or applications may end up saving no water, increasing water depletion, or merely reallocating water away from existing users. Opportunities When the food, energy and economic crisis hit Asia the threats of population growth, water scarcity and climate change to food security were obvious and alarming. In response, a number of governments, traditional and new donors (sovereign funds, private sector, emerging countries) have proposed to revive investment in irrigation systems, which was in a slump as a result of new priorities and the success of past development. Most of these ‘new’ investments consist of essentially ‘more of the same’ solutions applied to existing irrigation systems, in addition to the construction of new systems that are not too different from the existing ones. However, this renewed interest in irrigation and agriculture also presents an opportunity. The opportunities lie in the recognition of the dynamics at work in today’s agriculture sector and the complex and open nature of irrigation systems. Many systems are now a mixture of formal and informal irrigation irrespective of their size, and they need to be understood as such. It is no longer adequate to consider them as discrete objects in the river basins. It is also no longer appropriate to manage irrigation systems for farmers only. Almost all systems are multiple use and recognizing them as such may lead to better decisions, optimized productivity of use and improved financial platforms for management, operation and maintenance. Opportunities for the private sector to help improve water delivery exist but are largely untested. Irrigation departments could outsource irrigation services, create public-private partnerships or provide incentives for irrigation officials to act as entrepreneurs in publicly managed operations. The shift from rural to urban living has provided farmers with new options. Some have quit farming for city-based jobs, others have become part-time farmers. Those remaining have taken advantage of improved access to markets to diversify their activities and produce higher-value crops. Far from being passive recipients of official irrigation development and management, they are better educated and have an enormous capacity for innovation, investment and supporting service costs if

the service offered is the service they need and irrigation is a profitable proposition. Certain performance indicators remain pertinent such as economic and financial viability while others need to be revised, combining productivity and efficiency considerations and the provision of ecosystem and other services. The quality of service delivery to farmers remains a core objective. In terms of poverty alleviation and food security, weighing different options should consider whether there are better options for farmers than increasing production as the means to achieve food security understood as availability, access, nutrition and stability. Integrated water resources management (IWRM) provides opportunities to recognize the complexity of systems, their links with other sectors and uses and position in the basins and for improved governance and dialogue among users. This will require that approaches and instruments are adapted, where needed, to informal water economies. IWRM and water resource managers must understand agricultural water management and depart from standard recipes for the irrigation sector reforms. Towards a New Framework for Action Achieving economic, food and water security in the face of the region’s many challenges leads to a redefinition of key objectives as improving agricultural water productivity and service to farms and other water users. Five key strategies for future interventions are proposed: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. Modernize yesteryear’s schemes for tomorrow’s needs. Go with the flow by supporting farmers’ initiatives. Look beyond conventional PIM/IMT recipes. Empower all stakeholders through knowledge. Invest outside the irrigation sector.

In addition, decision-makers and users need to review broad social, economic and environmental objectives through a water lens and improve their understating of water availability and use in order to guide bulk water allocation, sectoral policies, productivity targets, and policy instruments and investments in all productive sectors including revitalizing irrigation in the region.

In order to achieve the required coherent, effective and feasible set of policies, strategies and interventions the following are critical: • Developing a solid water accounting foundation as a pre-requisite; • Improved processes for decision-making and negotiation among stakeholders; • A focus on the water, energy and food nexus as a fruitful entry point; • Development of risk management strategies for national food security and more generally economic, food and water security; • Progress on monitoring of investment and results. Explicitly addressing the following dilemmas, trade-offs and difficulties is also necessary: • Managing Transitions: supporting continuity or a combination of improvements and exit strategies? • Informal water economies: to manage or not to manage? • Is the pursuance of water productivity (economic efficiency) always compatible with other strategic goals such as food security, rural stability and equity? • Efficiency or resilience and redundancy? • Implementation of ideal or second-best/Plan B options? • Prioritizing: national objectives, local objectives or basin objectives? How do we better align goals? • Realistic financial arrangements and incentives for performance • Food, water and energy nexus Obstacles to changing the outlook of the sector must not be underestimated. Policies and reforms imposed from outside have not lived up to expectations and the capacity of external development partners to impose them will continue to erode in the region. Capacity building and changing practices and results on the ground can serve as a basis for developing a broad constituency to effect the changes in governance and policy and the fundamental sectoral reforms that are needed. In the long term, this solution will entail overhauling the educational establishments and their curricula so that the new generation of policy-makers, experts, managers and farmers are equipped with new concepts and knowledge required to implement a

change agenda. This change agenda needs to be clarified now to ensure that present opportunities for investment make this change agenda possible, rather than more difficult. Moving Forward In order to move forward an approach is needed that entails country-led visioning and strategic planning based on well-informed bargaining and deliberation. This process will allow governments to make their own policy and investment choices that take into account the unique socio-economic and environmental context in their country. There are a wide array of existing and new tools available that can assist countries in setting the agriculture sector on the new course that is required to address looming challenges. Existing tools • MASSCOTE, AquaCrop and CropWat • e-Water Source (Australia’s integrated catchment and basin-scale urban, water resources and conjunctive use hydrological and ecological modeling program) • Water Investment Frameworks • NEGOTIATE (Dore et al, 2010): • ABCDE (Perry, 2012) New tools • Rapid Policy Appraisal (RPA): is currently being designed as an important first step to a broader reform process. The RPA consists of a series of probing questions designed to facilitate serious selfreflection among policy-makers and provide the space required to have frank and honest policy discussions without fear of negative consequences. The RPA can help to ensure all policy-makers are oriented towards the same vision, are aware of the gaps in understanding and have a common understanding as to what they want to achieve compared with on the ground realities. The RPA has been piloted in the Project basins and received very positive feedback.

Policy development framework: a stepwise framework designed to guide policy-makers through the drafting project ensuring that they systematically consider their policies through a multiobjective and water lens. Policy dialogue: a structured policy dialogue facilitated by visioning exercises for both long-term water security and longterm food security will be vital.

These new tools have been formulated as part of the ‘Analysis of Sustainable Water Resource Use’ project and will be further developed by FAO in close coordination with a range of national and international partners in the region through new and ongoing programs. References Dore, J., Robinson, J. and Smith, M. (Eds) (2010). Negotiate – Reaching agreements over water. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN Facon, T., 2010. Agricultural Water Management Innovations and Good Practices. Background paper for the Investment Forum for Food Security in Asia and the Pacific, Asian Development Bank, Manila, Molden, D., Oweis, T., Steduto, P Bindraban, P Hanjra, M.A.and Kijne, J., 2010. ., ., Improving agricultural water productivity: Between optimism and caution. In Agricultural Water Management 97 (2010) 528–535. Elsevier, Netherlands. Mukherji, A., T. Facon, J. Burke, C. De Fraiture, J. Faures, B. Fuleki, M. Giordano, D. Molden, and T. Shah. 2009. Revitalizing Asia’s irrigation: To sustainably meet tomorrow’s food needs. IWMI, Colombo, Sri Lanka and Food and Agricultural Organization, Rome, Italy. 39 p. Perry, C, Who does what in water, Unpublished.

Turral, H., Svendsen, M., Faures, J.M., 2010. Investing in irrigation: Reviewing the past and looking to the future. In Agricultural Water Management 97 (2010), 551–560. Elsevier B.V., Netherlands. Facon T, Mukherji A. 2011. Small-scale irrigation: Is this the future? Paper presented at the Water Crisis and Choices, ADB and Partners, Manila Towards A Framework For Action On Water In Green Growth In Support Of Economic, Food And Water Security In The Asia Pacific, FAO, ESCAP March 2012 , http://asia-water.org.

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