Just over a decade ago, the National Council hosted its very first conference on Science, Policy and the Environment. A lot has happened in the last decade to shape the way we think-and respond to-the impacts of climate change, environment degradation and resource scarcity.
In Ghana, the Songor Lagoon, once a thriving wetland, has suffered severely from overuse-from extreme harvesting of mangroves and extensive drainage from farmland.
Today, there is broad consensus that climate change is one of our century's greatest challenges. And addressing it will require not only collective action, but also individual commitments to changing the way we interact with our environment. Over the very same time, we're seen global pressures increase-as the world's population jumped by a billion in just over a decade. By 2050, the world will need to feed 9 billion people-by which time more than 40 countries are expected to fall below the threshold for water stress.
These are very stark numbers for a world in which 1 billion people already lack access to clean water; where 1 billion people will go to bed hungry every night; and where 3.5 million children will die each year from malnutrition. In this world, we have to recognize that sustainable development means more than delivering vaccines or building schools. It means that we must effectively and efficiently protect and manage the environment that supports us-the fertile farms, the water basins, the clean air that will sustain our growing numbers.
The fundamental reality is that immense challenges like climate change, poverty and food insecurity aren't going solved by traditional approaches. The scale of those challenges is so massive, they will require new innovations, driven by the transformational power of science and technology.
To drive this approach forward, we are embracing innovation and science as a core part of our work-recapturing USAID's legacy of transformational development through technological breakthroughs. The legacy that helped bring us the Green Revolution and oral rehydration therapy. And a legacy that helped green the Sahel, transforming 50 million hectares threatened by desertification-an area larger than Sweden-into sustainably productive lands.
We're launching a series of grant competitions called Grand Challenges for Development, designed to bring the scientific and research communities together to break through intractable problems. Innovations that can bring light to millions around the world who lack access to electricity, using off-grid, small-scale sources of wind and solar power. Innovations, like climate-resilient seeds, that enable farmers to grow crops in increasingly drier and variable climates. And innovations that expand access to clean water while conserving its use-a critical challenge in countries throughout the Middle East and Africa.
We've already launched Grand Challenges in education and health-and will soon launch them in energy and agriculture. We're also partnering with the National Science Foundation to link their research fellows with USAID-funded counterpart scientists in the developing world. We believe bringing these scientists together will help us focus our most cutting-edge technology on the most difficult problems in development. In our first round, we received over 300 proposals, and over 1/3 of them addressed environmental challenges.
And we're harnessing technology advances around the world: whether that means helping farmers on remote plots of land access to real-time agricultural extension information on their cell phones, or building a publically available geospatial map that will track our development projects-and provide layers with relevant data like weather patterns, environment degradation and population centers. By harnessing innovative breakthroughs, we can deliver transformational results across every challenge in development-from managing our natural resources to providing enough nutritious food to feed our growing numbers.
I understand you heard from Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan earlier this morning about Feed the Future-President Obama's global food security initiative. Feed the Future represents an entirely new approach to food security-one that works in partnership with countries, local smallholder famers and private sector partners like PepsiCo and Walmart to develop productive, resilient agricultural sectors. By focusing our investments in regions most likely to flourish and agricultural systems with the greatest chance of fighting poverty and malnutrition, we have begun to see concrete results that protect our environment and improve human welfare at the same time.
In the Sahel-where 1.3 million children suffer from acute malnutrition-the persistent threat of desertification and drought further compounds the region's efforts to achieve food security. In Mali, Senegal and the Gambia, we helped refine ridge tillage technology to stop rainfall where it fell and allow it to soak into soil. This simple rainfall management tool helped immediately increase water absorption into the soil by 60 percent and improve crop yields by as much as 50 percent. It also produced two highly welcomed, but unanticipated results. It recharged local water tables, enabling farmers to tend dry-season gardens. And it increased the productivity of local high-value trees, like baobab and shea.
In Ethiopia, we've helped improve land management by supporting the government's efforts to implement a land certification system. It verifies farmers' rights and issues the certificate jointly to the husband and the wife. By improving land governance, we can reduce community tensions and increase agricultural productivity by as much as 45 percent.
And across the world, we now prioritize building community resilience and strong agricultural systems from the very onset of emergencies.
In Pakistan, this approach helped save the winter wheat harvest after the summer 2010 floods-and contributed directly to Pakistan's relatively strong balance of payments position last year. And in Somalia, this approach has allowed farmers to complete a major planting in advance of the current rains-and will be a major factor in speed their recovery from famine and rebuilding domestic agricultural production.
Laying the groundwork for a food secure future, these early results emphasize that foundational connection between our environment and our welfare. But they also represent another fundamental reality-the connection between our land and our security. We know that in regions where we witness scarcity of resources and community vulnerability today, we are more likely to face heightened tensions and conflict tomorrow.
And nowhere is the power of this relationship more evident today than in the Horn of Africa. As many of you know, the worst drought in 60 years has put more than 13.3 million people, especially women and children, at severe risk-greater than the populations of New York City and Los Angeles combined. Thanks to the leadership of President Obama and Secretary Clinton, we responded immediately to the crisis, becoming the largest provider of humanitarian and development assistance in the region.
But in a region where our embassies have been bombed, ships have been hijacked and extremist movements have toppled governments, we have to do more than respond to emergencies. We have to prevent these crises from occurring in the first place. By preventing famine, we prevent the despair and frustration that can lead people toward violence, piracy and terrorism. By investing in the integrity of the environment throughout the region, we are generating sustainable economic growth and creating stable trade partners for America. And by strengthening food security, we end the cycle of food riots, famine and food aid that can dramatically undermine regional stability.
This is a photograph from South Sudan, where land is fertile and yields so low that productivity could increase by as much as 200 to 300 percent. In a country still suffering from decades of conflict-where more than 80 percent of people depend on agriculture for their income-we have to help them find a way to tap the surrounding natural resources sustainably and effectively.
That is where you and the diverse communities you represent come in. As conference attendees did 12 years ago, I encourage you to keep addressing gaps in knowledge and communication; create innovative partnerships that combine the resources and expertise of public and private sectors to scale-up our impact and effect; and carefully evaluate the progress of our collective efforts-with a willingness to alter your direction if they prove ineffective.
There is no question that we can meet the demands of the future so long as we continue to bend the curve of development progress. Many of you have seen the map of the world at night. Today, that map still shows entire regions covered in darkness-and the prospect of building power plants, laying down transmission lines and bringing electricity to every village is incredibly daunting. But this map shows what is possible when we embrace technologies that can leap ahead of existing patterns of development. This map shows connections between people on Facebook-and as a result, the rapid growth of internet access throughout the world in just a few years.
When you witness just how rapidly a technology like mobile phones or internet access has spread throughout every corner of the developing world, it highlights exactly what is possible when we invest in solutions that transform our world.
Last updated: November 21, 2014