Innovating water technologies will help us feed the planet

by Ku McMahan, Securing Water for Food
Tuesday, 3 November 2015 14:48 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As we speak, massive droughts are affecting millions of people around the globe, and in developing countries, this often translates to hunger. This month, the United Nations announced that 27.4 million people in Africa will experience food insecurity because of these droughts, and Indonesia alone reports that 22 million of its citizens will be affected. But the problem is that this is just a fraction of the billion people on this planet who already don’t have access to enough food.

In the next 35 years, the world’s population is projected to grow to 9 billion, and with it, our water demands – two thirds of which are used to grow and raise our food – are expected to double. So we need to think now about how to make more water available for drinking and agriculture, and we need to focus on the areas that are hardest hit – the poorest and toughest to reach regions of the world.

The good news: we have the power to do this.

Citizens from all over the world and from every walk of life – scientists, entrepreneurs, investors, development experts, and everyday people – are making a difference in water and food security. They are helping people in developing and emerging economies access low-cost, water-smart technologies they didn’t have access to before.

In South Africa, a company called Reel Gardening developed a garden-in-a-box – a simple strip of biodegradable, pre-fertilized paper seed tape that perfectly spaces your garden to maximize water use and limit user error. By taking the counting, measuring, fertilizing and guesswork out of farming,Reel Gardening has made it possible for over 300,000 families and over 30,000 schools in South Africa to put food on the table and fuel school lunches.

On the other side of the world in Seattle, a company called Adaptive Symbiotic Technologies is brewing an organic endophyte concoction that protects seeds from water- and heat-stress. In plain speak, they can coat seeds with a fungus discovered in Yellowstone National Park that can decrease water needs by half and increase crops yields by 29 percent. They’re on track to start selling these new seeds this year.

These are just a couple of examples of the types of innovations that Securing Water for Food: A Grand Challenge for Development (SWFF) is incubating. SWFF is a multi-government partnership that accelerates high-potential solutions to combat our planet’s agricultural water challenges in hard-hit developing countries. We tap the collective imagination and ingenuity of water experts and entrepreneurs and help them scale their water-for-food solutions in new markets around the globe.

So far we’ve funded 29 innovators over the course of three calls for innovation who have saved over 500 million liters in water (the equivalent of 200 swimming pools), produced nearly 2,000 tons of food (the equivalent of over 165 elephants), and provided technologies to over 340,000 farmers and growers, or the equivalent of a small city of individuals who are armed with water-saving tools to grow food more efficiently.

But these innovations are just the tip of the iceberg. On November 3, at this year’s Amsterdam International Water Week, we will announce the next 12 ideas that could change the world. They include the world’s first accurate tropical weather forecast model and a biodegradable “plant diaper” that absorbs 100 times its own weight in water so that plant roots have more water to grow.

And this is just the first step. Big ideas start small and need many people to help them scale. SWFF is just one part of what we are hoping is becoming a much larger movement.

We need a collective effort of all citizens. We need more scientists and entrepreneurs to dream the impossible. We need more investors and conveners to help make it happen. We need governments to support initiatives like these. We need every day citizens who are passionate about solving complicated problems. If you are reading this, we needyou. There are 7 billion people on this planet and together we have the ability to solve our water challenges.

Dr. Ku McMahan is Team Lead of Securing Water for Food: a Grand Challenge for Development, which is supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID),the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of The Netherlands (MFA-NL).