Europe is suffering from a record breaking drought, jeopardizing food production and restricting households’ water access. European governments have announced emergency plans and aid money to help farmers.
As June 17 marks World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, does Europe need to start thinking seriously about adapting to recurrent water scarcity? What needs to be done so that drought damages are mitigated?
Europe might take a look for inspiration at communities in the South, who face drought almost every alternate year but are using effective solutions to adapt to water scarcity.
Those include rainwater harvesting – capturing and storing rainwater for later use – and water conservation, which includes reducing run-off and increasing the capacity of soil and vegetation to retain water.
Such techniques are nothing new. During the Roman era, rainwater harvesting structures were essential and at the centre of settlements. However, in developed European countries, such practices have largely died away with the introduction of more centralized “pipeline” water. People open the tap and take the availability of water for granted.
Much of Europe’s modernized agricultural sector now neglects water conservation principles such as maintaining organic content in the soil for better water retention. But better water use and management in drought situations is becoming more important as recurrent droughts hit Europe and agriculture remains the biggest water user.
Next year, the European Union will review the Water Directive, which aims to manage use of river basins. It is also looking at pilot programs for best practices in water conservation, water harvesting, irrigation, surface runoff management and other measures aimed at increasing drought resilience.
What about looking at successful practices in the South?
Kothapally is a 1,500 inhabitant rural community in India’s semi-arid Andhra Pradesh state. Nearly every household is involved in agricultural activities, and water availability and water access are what stands between farmers and poverty.
Thirty years ago, Kothapally was a poor community facing recurrent droughts. Many families were forced to migrate as a consequence.
The government of Andhra Pradesh asked the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), part of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), to explore low cost water conservation solutions to improve crop yields in the face of drought.
In response, a project was designed with and managed by the community. This required a long term collaborative approach, but it has paid benefits.
The Kothapally community’s 270 farmer families all became members of the watershed association, a local group that worked with scientists to identify and build water harvesting structures. Projects included installing drainwater gullies to divert run-off water to collection ponds or wells, creating or maintaining bunds (dams) to stop soil erosion, and using vermicompost –compost processed by worms - to enhance organic content and improve its ability to hold water. The farmers operate and maintain these systems.
Kothapally, which once suffered water scarcity (even for drinking in summer) and widespread poverty until 1998, now a green prosperous village boasting healthy crop and high value vegetable yields even in the baking summer months. The village receives frequent visits from water experts from Asia and Africa as this participatory watershed system is promoted as a model for successful water management.
A recent study released in May 2011 by ICRISAT and the Stockholm Resilience Centre compared Kothapally and neighbouring villages to analyse the impact of community water conservation and harvesting on water resources availability and socio-economic consequences.
The analysis showed very positive results. Water runoff halved compared to before the intervention and the groundwater recharge increased by more than 200 percent. Now community wells remain full even during the dry season.
The social dynamics are very important as well. Kothapally’s women were particularly active in the effort through self-help groups, which first focused on vermicomposting but went on to finance a diverse range of small-scale enterprises from tree nurseries to tailoring.
“Kothapally proves the long-term benefits of a holistic and participatory approach to promote local low-cost water and soil conservation,” said William Dar, director general of ICRISAT. “This is a valuable model to follow given the water crisis that many countries are now facing.”
We could learn a lot from countries where people have faced recurrent drought over a long time. The big difference is that in the North the state provides a safety net in extreme conditions – what is currently happening in UK and France.
NORTHERN SAFETY NET
In the South, there is no history of this type of support which has meant communities are more eager and obliged to participate in water conservation and drought mitigation measures. The lack of a safety net could be why a participatory approach as used in Kothapally works in the countries in the South but may not be as successful in the North where farmers have access to compensation and subsidies.
European governments have started investing in changing people’s use of water, often through a mix of financial incentives and law enforcement. But it may be worth looking at ways to increase true participation in the water debate. Participatory processes in the South, such as that in Kothapally, could be a useful toolbox.
Suhas Wani, a project leader and principal scientist on watersheds at ICRISAT, feels a collaborative approach is feasible in the North.
“As in India or Africa, agriculture is the main water user in Europe,” he said. “But farmers have larger holdings so you can manage water resources and scarcity in an easier way. In Europe, you could be talking about one decision-maker for 200 hectares whereas in India there could be 200 households on 200 hectares.”
Europe also has access to better data and instruments to manage water with more precision.
However, Europeans are not so accustomed to water stress in a region where resources are normally adequate. That does not encourage farmers to apply the best agricultural practices in terms of water conservation.
In Asia and Africa, especially in dryland agriculture and in the semi-arid tropics, however, communities are under pressure and are rapidly implementing water conservation best practices when they have the right knowledge and tools.
Europeans could do the same, experts say.
“Long term investments in international agriculture and natural resources research is not just about solving the challenges of developing countries,“ said Lloyd Le Page, CEO of the CGIAR Consortium. “This is about investing in our children’s future, and about good stewardship of the limited resources that we have to feed the planet both today and tomorrow.
LESSONS FOR EUROPE
“The drought today in Europe shows that the lessons we learn from our research in arid and tropical regions in the South can be valuable to the North given the unforeseen consequences and the global nature of climate change,” Le Page said.
Innovative public-private partnerships are also supporting the exchange of best practice and guidelines for sustainable water use. A consortium of food companies makes up the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI), which aims to promote sustainable agriculture. The platform’s Water and Agriculture Working Group focuses on the development of efficient water management practices to improve the quality and quantity of water available at a watershed level.
A new pilot project in India, led by the SAI working group and run by ICRISAT, seeks to scale up the use of good water management practices and related tools at a farm level.
The pilot aims to develop a simple water impact calculator for farmers to estimate the impact of their current practices on water conservation, and find ways to minimise water use. The calculator could be a valuable tool for India but also possibly for other countries touched by problems of water scarcity.
Given the global nature of climate change, Europe’s drought today suggests the lessons learned from research in the South could be valuable to the North as well.
Alina Paul-Bossuet is a communications specialist for ICRISAT.