Water and food top the list, and the two are intimately connected. With World Water Day focusing on food security this year, it’s clear that the sustainable provisioning of these two elements to the seven billion-plus inhabitants of the world is a growing challenge—and one that is increasingly being addressed by a range of new technologies.
Water shortages, droughts, and conflicts over water rights do not simply leave people thirsty—they have the potential to shut down the entire agricultural system by which most of the world obtains its food. The astonishing reality is that agriculture accounts for an estimated 70 percent of the world’s water use.
Today, using improved irrigation practices, text messaging alert systems, remote sensing techniques, and other technologies, USAID and its partners are implementing innovations in the water sector to improve food security around the globe. Many of these forward-looking approaches are already reaping benefits for families, communities, and governments from Afghanistan to Honduras and from Egypt to Indonesia. While many of these projects embrace the high-tech, they do not ignore the simple but critical fact that technology is meaningless without local acceptance and engagement.
A recently completed partnership between USAID and New Mexico State University is a prime example of how technology can be successfully integrated into an ancient practice for obtaining water for irrigation and other uses. The end result? An immeasurable boost to the safety and reliability of water access for hundreds of thousands of Afghan people. Each spring snowmelt races down the Hindu Kush mountain range and supplies farmers with water for their crop systems, which are predominantly wheat, as grains make up two-thirds of the average Afghan’s caloric intake. The problem arises in the summer, when the water runs out. Roger Beck, chief of party for the Afghanistan Water, Agriculture, and Technology Transfer (AWATT) project, recalls observing a farmer irrigating his wheat fields with what appeared to be too much water. “I asked the farmer why, and he gave me an answer I’ve never forgotten,” said Mr. Beck. “He said, ‘Well, today I have access to water, and I never know when I will have access to it again.’”
The $16 million AWATT project was developed to help individuals and communities manage their water and make it last. By installing water-monitoring equipment and conducting research to determine the optimal time to water crops, as well as using techniques such as laser-land leveling, the AWATT team’s efforts increased crop yields 50 to 70 percent above provincial averages. “Once you do that, you’ve met the family’s needs, so now they can put some land into higher value crops like vegetables, fruits, and nuts, elevating not only their food security but also their economic standing,” said Mr. Beck.
Another element of AWATT, led by NMSU engineer Zohrab Samani, engaged with communities in western Afghanistan to tackle water management at its source by overhauling structures called karezes, which provide water for irrigation and other uses. Karezes are horizontally carved wells that access groundwater by tunneling into hills, where the water table is higher. The work of digging the wells is arduous and dangerous—earthen collapses are not uncommon—and the karezes require regular upkeep.
Mr. Samani, a native of an Iranian village where karezes were commonplace, saw a way to improve their structural integrity. In the fall of 2010, along with other engineers and locals, he led 11 projects to restore karezes and canals, lining the structures with a mixture of rock and concrete and installing gates to control the flow of water. With a total investment of under $1 million, the work brought 8,440 additional hectares into irrigation and permanently employed 124,500 on farms. A village leader wrote a grateful note to Mr. Samani, saying, “Nobody has ever helped us. First the Russians came, then the Mujahedeen came, then the Taliban came. They all made promises, but nobody helped us. You are the first one who has helped us. May God reward you a hundred times. Our gratitude is the size of these mountains.”
Savoring Every Drop
While springtime gives Afghans the problem of too much water, in many other places around the world each drop of water is precious year-round. That’s why drip irrigation, a technology made widespread by USAID programs, has been so revolutionary at improving crop yields. By installing a network of valves and tubes in farmed beds, plants receive a small but steady application of water at their bases, where it can be most efficiently absorbed with minimal loss to evaporation. However, this is a technique that requires resources once only available to large, wealthy farming operations.
USAID partner Fintrac, Inc., has changed that, making drip irrigation and other enhanced agricultural practices affordable and accessible to small farmers in countries from Cambodia to Tanzania, as part of the Feed the Future global hunger and food security initiative. One of Fintrac’s efforts, called the ACCESO project, is based in Honduras, where maize is a major crop.
Incorporating drip irrigation there has had many benefits. “You have better control of the plant’s water needs, healthier roots, and an equal distribution of fertilizer and other inputs for pest and disease control,” said Antonio Coello, a monitoring and evaluation specialist for Fintrac.
According to Fintrac’s records, after incorporating drip irrigation and using improved seeds on Honduran family farms, crop yields increased 167 percent and net household incomes increased 573 percent.
“By implementing these practices, families with limited land to produce crops for self-consumption who are food insecure are often tripling their yields, considerably increasing availability of food in their homes, and oftentimes producing surpluses which they can sell to nearby markets,” said Mr. Coello.
Water from Space
While local interventions like Fintrac’s can reap dramatic benefits for communities, other USAID projects are using satellite-based technologies to capture data on water that has the potential to inform water resources policy and management decisions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
Two complementary programs administered by the Office of Middle East Programs (OMEP) in Egypt rely on remote sensing to gather water-related data: the Modeling and Monitoring Agriculture and Water Resources Development (MAWRD) program and the Water Information Systems Platform (WISP). The programs are the result of a collaborative effort among USAID, the World Bank, NASA, USDA, the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA), the Arab Water Council, and five countries in the region. They work on the principle that regional scale water resources data can be collected faster and more cost effectively from space than from on the ground gauges and monitoring systems.
“Well monitoring, resource availability, and on-farm water application data is not readily available in the Middle East and North Africa,” said Mark Peters, USAID/OMEP’s regional water advisor based in Cairo. “When data does exist, there are barriers to data-sharing between different ministries and agencies within a particular country as well as across borders. As a result, we’re missing a tremendous opportunity to inform water-related decisions with real, verifiable, scalable data.”
MAWRD, a three-year, $2 million project implemented by ICBA, is scheduled to end this December. The project uses NASA satellite data and models “to develop a dataset that will help researchers and decision makers better understand the availability, location, and use of water resources at a regional scale,” said Mr. Peters. The data will also be analyzed to help create a regional model that forecasts climate change impacts.
WISP, launched last October, will provide grants and technical expertise to the remote-sensing agencies of Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon. This investment will leverage satellite-based sensing technologies to inform regional water resource decision-making, including irrigation management, drought, and flood forecasting.
The resulting national- and regional-scale data will be widely available online, with higher-resolution data available to in-country decision makers. “The overarching goal of these projects is to improve the data available to researchers and decision makers and help foster a culture of data-informed water resources policy and management,” said Mr. Peters. Better information sharing could help prevent conflicts over shared water resources and even provide information necessary to predict and avert drought-induced famines.
MENA countries are home to ten percent of the world’s people, but just one percent of the world’s water. Thus, programs such as WISP and MAWRD can play an important role in making the most of increasingly scarce regional water resources. “These programs demonstrate the importance of science and technology in water resources decision-making,” added Mr. Peters. “Ideally, data-driven decision making helps us make optimal use of water resources and mitigate against water related conflict.”
Lesson Learned: The Human Element
Sometimes, however, the most important factor in implementing water projects has nothing to do with technology and datasets, but instead involves human factors such as promoting adoption and ownership in communities that are involved.
In Brazil, the recent launch of a program called Fishing with 3G Nets has brought the human element in touch with the technological side. A collaboration between USAID, the city of Cabrália, the Brazil Sustainable Environmental Institute (IABS), and telecommunications companies Qualcomm,Vivo, and ZTE, sought to address several challenges at once:
- providing income and employment for fishermen and the indigenous community of Cabrália;
- improving the fishermen’s safety at sea;
- increasing the communities’ access to the resources of the internet; and
- preventing overfishing of certain species in the region—thus ensuring a sustainable and nutritious food source for the region.
With funding of $360,000 and roughly $25,000 of in-kind donations, the program offered cell phones to fishermen and trained them in their use. Applications, or ‘apps,’ downloaded onto the phones provide information such as weather reports and the current market value of certain types of fish. One app allows fishermen to input their costs and the species they are fishing and indicates whether or not they will break even or make a profit. The phones also allow fishermen to connect with buyers to share “the type of fish they catch and how much of them are coming into the market,” said Alex Alves, environment and partnership development officer for USAID/Brazil.
Serving as more than just a resource for the fishermen of the villages, Fishing with 3G Nets reached out to the larger communities as well. “Indeed, one of the components of the project was to reform an abandoned jail and turn it into a telecenter,” said Mr. Alves. The computing center is now open and available to the community to access the internet for educational purposes.
"Our work with USAID has allowed fishermen and farmers in underserved communities to gain access to information that will improve their trade,” said Francisco Soares, Qualcomm's senior director for government affairs. “3G technology is making a difference to people in these areas that would otherwise have no access to information that is critical to their safety and economic development."
Mr. Alves said he’s already seeing the project’s impact. One fishing unit that had been closed was reopened by Fishing with 3G Nets. Now that group is selling $4,500 a month in fish. “For this community this is a very considerable amount of money,” he said.
With such measured, meaningful applications of technology, USAID and its partners can make potent changes in people’s lives. The step from food scarcity to food security can be small—a few percentage changes in a crop yield or a bit of knowledge gained from using mobile devices—but potent. Sometimes it can start with just a few drops of water.
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Last updated: March 22, 2013