Panel discussion presents different solutions to water management
Saturday October 23rd 2010, 03:37 PM
Filed under: Conference

Because agriculture depends on water supply, it’s generally agreed that water is essential to the problem of global food security. If you don’t have water, you can’t grow food. With global warming, this issue will be exarcerbated, and world-wide water scarcity will have a huge impact on the well-being of people everywhere.

At the discussion on Water Management Scenarios for Securing Food Supply, speakers from India, China, and Costa Rica talked about future plans, innovative research, and the problems that the different countries are and will be facing with regards to water scarcity. A part of the McGill Conference of Food Security, this panel discussion stood out to me because it highlighted the astounding difference in ideas to manage food security given the coming climate change problems. From the question and answer period, it showed how the problems that we have to deal with are huge, complex, and very different.

M. Gopalakrishnan, the Secretary General of the Indian International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage (ICID) started off the talks by explaining the current and future situation of India. India has been facing a rapid decline in water levels. While irrigation will see a 60% increase by 2015, industry will grow by 300%, which will mean that the total of utilizable water in India will be met by 2015. In addition, food security is already at risk because of both monsoon dependency and inadequate storage facilities.

Another problem for food security in India will be the huge population growth; it is estimated that its population would stabilize at 1.8 billion by 2050. Changes in climate and water supply has resulted in an increase in droughts and floods in the subcontinent. “Extreme conditions are becoming a yearly phenomenon,” said Gopalakrishnan, “… India has to learn to live with water scarcity.” India’s problems will be to secure food for the underpriviliged, which it is already struggling to do—Gopalakrishnan did not hesitate to point out that 27% of the world’s undernourished are Indians and that so far government interventions failed to redistribute wealth to the rural poor. However, he concluded with a confident statement that, learning certain “success stories,” India may see sustainability of food production and water management.

Next, Zhanyi Gao, Director of China’s National Centre for Efficient Irrigation Technology Research, seemed similarly positive despite the facts. His presentation covered how China will respond to its foreseeable problems, involving mostly technological and managerial innovations. For example, China is now building thousands of new reservoirs and pumping wells, reinforcing old irrigation canals with lining and pipelines, and implementing drip irrigation systems more often. China is looking into bringing water from their water-abundant South to the North, which has been facing problems of drought. It’s clear that China’s main objective will be irrigation efficiency which will be reached through investing, technology, and professional knowledge. Another part of its water management system will be an attempt to manage demand, which may be a difficult task given that, as China’s population will reach 1.5 billion by 2030, grain demand will increase, farmland will decrease with the rapid development of urbanization, and there will be an increase in water competition between industry, domestic use, and agriculture. All these factors will threaten China’s future security.

José Joaquín Campos, the Director General of the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) in Costa Rica, provided a completely different set of possible solutions. Campos explained that CATIE is an institution that combines “technical cooperation, research, and education” to generate scientific knowledge and provide “sustainable rural solutions to address global challenges.” It was clear that CATIE views socio-ecological systems not as problems of technology, as the two previous speakers had done, but as “interconnected, complex, and dynamic.” Campos stated that “both social and ecological resilience is key for local and sustainable devolopment [since] 70% of poor live in rural areas.” Campos also stressed the importance of social responsibility and equity, which could be achieved through a method called “collective action.” In Campos and CATIE’s view, the global food crisis could be solved through a balance of “increased productivity, enhancing competitiveness and resilience, and enhanced local institutions.” The outcome of these methods would result in “more and better food products and more sustainable and competitive livelihoods.”

In the question and answer session audience members found problems with India and China’s methods of water management, especially the use of dams and the little effort that went into decreasing demand rather than increasing supply. One audience member questioned China’s research in food diversity and resilience and another doubted that China could solve its problems through its increase in damming and building water reservoirs, especially because global warming will make such water storage facilities unsustainable because of increased evaporation. Other audience members applauded CATIE’s determination to work at a local level rather than a national one.

What was clear in Gopalakrishnan and Gao’s responses was that, rather than being worried about issues like local sustainability in the far future, they were thinking 10-20 years ahead and seeing the immense problems that their countries would have to deal with. Supplying food to the largest populations in the world is a daunting task, and the depletion of water resources isn’t making it easier. China and India can’t afford to think about local socio-ecological solutions. At the same time, CATIE is able to take things to a local level because it isn’t occupied with problems of rapidly-growing industry and population and mass malnourishment. The speakers were continents apart and their methods showed this.

Personally I appreciated CATIE’s approach the most and was skeptical of the “success stories” and positive attitude that both Gopalakrishnan and Gao had. Campos finished his presentation with an “Under Construction” road sign, indicating that problems of food security should always be re-evaluated and research should constantly be put into question. CATIE’s methods showed this, but from the attitude of the Indian and Chinese representatives, their solutions seemed set in stone for the decades to come.

The panel discussion ended with a delicious assortment of cakes, chips, and pie, provided by Aramark. I really enjoyed the pecan pie and carrot cake.

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