Ripe for innovation – adapting to address agriculture’s increasing thirst

Cranberry harvest © iStock / benedek

With water demand from the agriculture sector growing, the editors of a new book highlighting varied global responses share thoughts on opportunities for progress.

By Erika Yarrow-Soden

A new book published by IWA Publishing explores some of the connections between water and the agriculture sector, providing a comprehensive account of water allocation in a range of international settings, and giving a reference point on how to design and implement sustainable water allocation systems. Josselin Rouillard, Christina Babbitt, Edward Challies and Jean-Daniel Rinaudo are the editors of the book. Here they comment on the needs around water management.

What are the key water challenges facing the agriculture sector?

Increasing water scarcity in many regions of the world is a significant challenge facing the agricultural sector. Demand grows from existing users and from new users, as irrigation becomes increasingly required in places where rainfed agriculture is becoming too risky.

Users who were enjoying large water allocations based on historical practices (or simply using large amounts of water where use was not regulated) are under increasing social and political pressure to share this resource with others. Rules need to be crafted (or reformed where they already existed) to organise water apportionment among users.

In this context, the challenge consists of designing (or reforming) allocation mechanisms to increase the economic efficiency of water use while ensuring environmental sustainability and social justice. This challenge has been addressed in very different ways in the countries analysed in Water Resources Allocation and Agriculture, published by IWA Publishing. While in some cases the problem has been approached from a strict economic perspective (relying on water markets for instance), others are utilising approaches that focus significantly on community involvement.

What are the barriers to change?

Authorities have generally responded to water scarcity by mobilising new water resources, through surface water storage and transfers, groundwater development, and desalination. However, as these supply options become exhausted, prohibitively expensive or contested, authorities are increasingly looking to reduce demand, and shift from open and unlimited access to regulated access of water resources. This shift challenges the status quo of existing institutions, customs, and norms that have evolved over many years, decades, or more.

“Initial inventories to better understand who is currently using water – where, when and how much – may trigger socio-political debate and opposition as decisions are made to quantify and allocate use”

The transition often requires the adoption of new physical infrastructure and management systems to measure and monitor water use. This can be costly and even resisted by users due to the sensitivities and fears that arise from the change. Initial inventories to better understand who is currently using water – where, when and how much – may trigger socio-political debate and opposition as decisions are made to quantify and allocate use.

The complexity of water resources, insufficient knowledge of interactions between surface water and groundwater, and the uncertainties that arise from the variability of climatic and environmental conditions, pose additional challenges and can serve as a barrier, slowing progress in the transition from open to regulated access of water resources.

In many regions, environmental and community water demands have not been explicitly accounted for when allocating water and devising equitable water allocation arrangements that all users can agree upon, especially in water-scarce regions, and that can be a challenging hurdle to overcome.

What contribution can technology and sustainable practices make?

Sustainable practices are essential in the transition from open to regulated access as users must share an increasingly limited supply of water. For agriculture, it becomes essential to promote more efficient irrigation practices and further water conservation by adopting less water demanding and more drought resistant crops, as well as farm management practices enhancing water retention in soils and the landscape. The establishment of allocation regimes must be accompanied by a broader set of incentives and instruments supporting a sustainable transition in farm practices.

Some countries, such as Spain, require that licenced users increase their efficient use of resources according to efficiency targets set in their concessions. This is used where the same use can be maintained with a smaller quantity of water.

In agriculture, for example, this may lead to investments in more efficient irrigation. In order to avoid that the ‘saved’ water is redirected to other consumptive purposes, potentially resulting in increased net water consumption, the saved water is subtracted from the licence, and no new entitlements are issued with the saved water.

In other places, such as the state of Idaho in the USA, more sustainable water extraction was achieved by reducing groundwater withdrawals but also through conjunctive management of surface water and groundwater and promotion of aquifer recharge.

Technology is a key tool in the transition away from open access. Monitoring where and how much water is extracted from the natural environment is a major challenge in all countries. Modern technologies, combining water metering on extraction points, telemetry for real-time monitoring, and satellite imagery to identify irrigated areas, can greatly facilitate the work of regulators. Technology can also help farmers better manage and control their water use.

Can you provide an example of a forward-thinking water allocation scheme that others could learn from?

We haven’t observed one single forward-thinking water allocation mechanism which we could put forward, but we rather see the wealth of experiences presented in this book as a menu of ideas which other practitioners can use to reform their allocation regimes through some form of ‘institutional bricolage’.

The Nebraska and Idaho examples are particularly inspiring in their approach to integrate the joint management of groundwater and surface waters, while the Australian example has worked on institutional innovations. The French, Spanish, Indian, and Brazilian experiences present inspiring forms of community involvement in groundwater allocation.

Some approaches are embedded in social innovation rather than technological ones, promoting social norms of compliance through user-based management of water allocations in agriculture.

The difficulties encountered could also serve as a source of inspiration to other countries.

Is there the political will to negotiate sustainable and equitable water allocation?

Water use rights and water resource allocations are often seen as areas of water management that are extremely rigid and unreformable. We hope this book will change that perception and show the wealth of promising past and ongoing initiatives. The examples presented show that when confronted with increasingly tense situations, authorities, users and communities are questioning their allocation regimes and promoting innovation.

The Australian example presents a reformed allocation regime albeit implemented at great social and political costs. The New Zealand approach shows how this nation is increasingly recognising indigenous water rights in a context mired by legacies of colonialism. The book also presents two cases of transboundary water allocation in widely different contexts (the US/Mexican border and Central Asia), showing how countries can collaborate in the quest for more sustainable and equitable water allocations.

More information

Water Resources Allocation and Agriculture: Transitioning from Open to Regulated Access
Josselin Rouillard, Christina Babbitt, Edward Challies and Jean-Daniel Rinaudo (Eds)
Open Access
IWA Publishing