Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Understanding climate change from a food and water security lens

- by Anjal Prakash

Participating in GWP Regional Workshop on Climate Change, Food and Water Security was an enriching experience. The workshop was organised at IWMI’s office in Colombo from 24th to 25th February, 2011. The concept note of the workshop throws some interesting questions linking food and water security with the issue of climate change.  

Picture courtesy: Ambika Sharma
The opening paragraph of the concept note reads “South Asia, together with Sub-Saharan Africa, is among the areas expected to be hardest hit by climate change. It will likely have profound effects on food and water security. Greater frequency of extreme events, warmer temperatures, increased incidence of temperature related diseases and pests, and increased risks and uncertainty are already evident. Severe flooding in 2007 along the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers affected over 13 million people in Bangladesh; flooding in Pakistan in 2010 severely affected 20 million people. India has likewise suffered numerous events of extreme rainfall, flooding and droughts. In addition the rise of sea level is a real threat to low lying areas in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The economic cost of the 2007 floods in Bangladesh was over $1 billion; in Pakistan it was nearly $10 billion. But the human suffering has been immeasurable. Millions of tons of food production have been lost in the process, adding unknown numbers of food security-related deaths to the thousands of deaths directly related to the flooding and its aftermath, including the spread of disease. Climate science and the projections of its various impacts are at an early stage of development in the region. Yet South Asia is among the most data rich regions of the developing world and is well endowed with considerable analytical capacity for providing policy inputs - a capacity that has yet to be fully mobilized for effective policy and institutional responses”.

So what are the challenges? That South Asia contains a third of the global population, as well as three quarters of the world’s billion poor and that its challenges are numerous – is the central theme of the workshop. Agriculture sits at the centre of these challenges – the concept note reads. Agriculture in south Asia is not only uses the largest proportion of surface and groundwater; it is also most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
South Asian agriculture has the lowest water productivity and its increased dependence on groundwater has thrown new challenges. Apart from the domestic issues, there are also concerns that are common across boundaries. There are issues around trans-boundary water management to which the region has to answer to sooner or later. Therefore collaborative riparian management will be crucial for settling many of the water-induced conflicts in the region; greater ‘hydro-diplomacy’ – both internally and across national borders – will need to balance the region’s growing water needs with larger security concerns.

On the preset of these issues, the workshop focussed on five major areas –

[1] To bring together knowledgeable professionals and experts specializing in regional, cross-sectoral work to identify the current state of knowledge: what we know and need to know to address the complex challenges – country by country and across the South Asia region that is related to climate change, food and water security; 
[2] To distill lessons from the existing knowledge to share with policy makers in the region;
[3] To identify means of effective dissemination of the existing knowledge pertinent to the regional issues, including the outcome of the workshop to all concerned stakeholders;
[4] To plan for the establishment of a long-term virtual platform of professionals that will comprise a South Asian Climate Change, Food and Water Security Platform/SA Network as part of the GWP-SAS network;
[5] To find means to operationalise the Platform/SA Network including agreeing on organisational arrangements with national, regional and international partners in support of a shared five year work plan and fund raising strategy, that will delineate areas for further research, analysis, periodic expert meetings around specific issues, training, publication and dissemination strategies—country by country and cross country.

Opening the meeting, Prof. Tushaar Shah commented that south Asia’s cup of woes is full. The region has about 35% global population but 75% of the world’s poorest billion. There are extreme pressure on land and water in the region. Groundwater exploitation has been one of the most significant leading to issues of water quantity and quality. IWRM approaches have been one of the significant achievements but application of this in South Asia has been poor because of a number of reasons. ‘The workshop will analyse the current knowledge and thinking on climate change, food and water security in the region’, Prof. Shah said.

The workshop keynote speech “What Does Climate Change mean to South Asia’s Water and Food Security?” 12th Five Year Plan Approach and Beyond was delivered by Mr. Mihir Shah, Member of India’s Planning Commission. In an interesting and most informative session of the workshop, Mr. Shah called for a different approach to incorporate climate change issues in India’s planning as it throws newer challenges. He said that water balance studies show a comfortable picture till 2050 but this means that one has to relook at the assumptions made while making the model. The groundwater balance has been showing signs of decline from 1990. Groundwater contributes to about 60% of irrigated agriculture in India and about 80% of the drinking water needs. Both drinking water and irrigation tap the same aquifer. Apart from the issue of water, sanitation is a major problem in India. Huge amount of solid waste that is generated per day goes as waste as wastewater recycling is very poor in India. 

Recently some emphasis has been given to dry land agriculture. He called for a move away from rice and wheat centric approaches, to pay more attention to the organisation of dry land agriculture. This is more because a large area in India is still under dry land agriculture and it is important to focus on understanding these areas from a food security angle. The national rainfed area authority has been looking at these issues. Closing the session, he emphasised that India needs a National Water Commission, that would monitor compliance with the national water strategy.

The sessions focussed on variety of issues ranging from Modeling, Climate Change, and Policy Making, Responses to Modeling Results from Multiple Perspectives, Learning from Irrigation System Management Experience in South Asia, Groundwater Management to IWRM in South Asia. The workshop discussed and deliberated on interesting set of questions related to the science of climate change and its applications with an understanding of food and water security.

However, the issues that were missing from the scene were an understanding of gender and equity. South Asia not only houses the poorest in the world; its social hierarchy is also the worst. There was only one session on social equity by Hamberto Pena, TEC committee Member of GWP.  In his opening remarks Dr. Pena said that the content and scope of social equity in the context of water remains fuzzy. His presentation however deliberated in detail on the issue but there was little discussion in the context of south Asia.  Gender and equity were missing from the scene and schema of things to an extent that we can’t even say that they were integrated into the session as cross cutting themes.

A gender audit of the workshop would throw more light to the way the workshop was planned. There were very few women professionals who were invited to present the work. Not that there aren’t many women water professionals in South Asia and the world (some of them were also in the audience) but just that this awareness hasn’t fetched much knowledge in many workshops I have been attending in the region.

Overall, the workshop focussed on many new challenges on food and water security in the wake of climate change but it did discount on issues from gender and social equity. South Asian Water sector is divided into many camps ranging from purely technical to a social and a political understanding and approaches. What is required is a merger of some of these conflicting views as water is a uniting factor. At this juncture, we need more dialogue between different views to come to a holistic understanding of water. 

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