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Special Issue of Water International

Page history last edited by Maya Rajasekharan 14 years, 12 months ago

Water, food and livelihoods: The Basin Focal Projects.

Water International, Volume 34 Issue 1 2009


This special issue of Water International brings together contributions to the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF) from a wide range of specialists looking at the global water and food system and its impact on poverty. The CPWF is a research-for-development program aimed at increased productivity of water for food and livelihoods, in a manner that is environmentally sustainable and socially acceptable.


To accomplish this goal will require an understanding of processes from local to global scales. Of particular importance is the river basin, the focus of a subset of the CPWF, the Basin Focal Projects (BFPs). Individual research activities rarely extend to a comprehension of the complexities of agricultural transformation at the basin level. The papers in this issue arise from the first set of BFPs, addressing the Karkheh River in Iran, the Mekong in Southeast Asia, the São Francisco in Brazil and the Volta in West Africa.


Outlining the components of the water and food problem:


Since agriculture is the largest consumer global freshwater resources, it is essential to consider food and water as coupled systems. BFPs report on the status of these systems in river basins, and on some of the risks and opportunities for change. In fact, while change is often regarded as a threat, it is inevitable and desirable, to enable more food to be produced with less water. An important role of research is to reduce the uncertainties of change. According to Rowe (1994), there are three types of uncertainties in change: structural, translational, and metrical.

Structural uncertainties arise when important components are excluded from analysis. It is normal for specialists to focus on specific aspects of a problem but this also carries the danger of omitting variables that are critical to understand complex livelihood-support processes.


Woolley et al. (Woolley et al.doc) introduce us to the structural components of the problem of water, food and livelihoods. Cook et al. (Cook et al.doc) take this further by identifying how the components from these domains are assembled together in basins. They select attributes from the broad scope of each domain to understand the problem at multiple scales. They also introduce what happens when crossing from global to basin to local scales, since putting the right components into the definition of the problem is only one part of the solution when the mix of components changes with scale.

Clanet and Ogilvie (Clanet and Ogilvie.doc), and Béné and Friend (Bene and Friend.doc) introduce aspects of the agricultural system that are often under-represented in assessments of river basin systems. Clanet and Ogilvie (Clanet and Ogilvie.doc), look at livestock herders in the northern Volta, and the many institutional aspects that influence how livelihoods co-exist amongst other water users. These issues concern the poorest within the basin. Béné and Friend (Bene and Friend.doc) look at the characteristics of fish-based livelihoods in West Africa and the Mekong, and point out that a farm-focused approach is limited in explaining how people who rely on fish are affected by changes in river basin hydrology. Both these papers also show that failure to recognize gendered differences in local opportunities and constraints is likely to hamstring solutions on the ground.


Translational uncertainty describes the political environment in which decisions are made. People have unequal access to power or information about decisions that influence what happens to water and food resources in their river basin. People who make decisions may not be aware, or have different value systems, to those who bear the consequences of those decisions. Shared understanding and agreement is a political process, described in this issue by Molle (Molle.doc), who describes the dangers of de-politicizing decision making, that is, reducing change to apparently simple technical choices.


Aligning technical information to support political processes is the focus of papers by de Condappa et al., (De Condappa et al.doc) and Maneta et al. (Maneta et al.doc). The first looks at the use of the WEAP tool to reduce the uncertainties of choosing between development of small reservoirs to support rural development and preserving inflows to large dams in the Volta. The second paper looks in more detail at the highly complex interactions between multi-scale hydrologic and economic systems in the São Francisco basin. This information could be used to support on-going debate concerning the expansion of irrigation against the protection of environmental flows.


Reducing metrical uncertainty is the fundamental process of enabling statements about the condition of an entity we deem important. These statements are the building blocks of understanding and several papers compare measurements of entities that are of particular importance to water and food locally, at basin scale, and between basins.


Terrasson et al. (Terrasson et al.doc) document causes of low grain yields in the Volta. Land and water productivity is very low throughout most of this basin, probably due to drought risk.  Ahmad et al. (Ahmad et al.doc) look at details of water use in the Karkheh Basin, and use remote sensing to reduce the uncertainty in estimates of water productivity, a variable of particular interest caused by spatial variation over the basin. Kirby and Mainuddin (Kirby and Mainuddin.doc) also look at water productivity, and use secondary statistical data to estimate changes in water productivity over time, across the different countries within the Mekong Basin.

Harrington et al. (Harrington et al.doc) bring estimates of water availability, water use, water productivity and poverty together across the nine river basins within the CPWF to enable simple comparisons amongst these diverse river basins. While we consider this last, for many this is a first step towards reducing uncertainty.


What will solutions to the water and food problem look like ?

‘More crop per drop’ is a catchy byword but there is more to the problem than a simple (or not so simple) increase in water productivity. There are indeed communities where shortage of water reduces livelihoods, and people are hungry, especially before harvest. Yet there are others where there is an abundance of water, yet people are still poor, even hungry. A focus on productivity alone does not adequately address the complex dynamics between water, food and poverty in river basins.


Firstly, we need to assess the scope of effort required and the scale at which we need solutions. This may require hydrologists or agricultural scientists to do some unaccustomed interacting with each other. We then need to consider which components of the problem must be resolved in order to remove critical uncertainty. Examples might be the:

  • Detailed analysis of the system to understand the complex interplay between water, food and institutions that underpin performance. For attributes such as water flow, analysis may use conventional modeling tools. For others, such as water productivity, more novel approaches may be required.
  • Cross basin comparisons characterize problems as they vary within and between basins and permit individual problems to be viewed in context. For example, one common issue is a lack of institutional support for the very poor, who are often marginalized socially and politically.


We need to recognize that change is a strongly political process in which coherent analysis has a major role to play in removing uncertainties that surround complex water and food problems but that it is best used in a deliberative (i.e. transparent and informed) process. As long as the poor remain marginalized from this process, they are likely to remain poor.



Rowe, W.D., 1994. Understanding uncertainty. Risk Analysis, 14, 743.

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