Achieving food security in the future, while using water resources in a sustainable manner, will be a major challenge for us and future generations. We will need to produce more "crop per drop" of water. The Sustainable Development Goal on water (SDG 6) will include a focus on increasing water-use efficiencies in all sectors. Considering that the agricultural sector is a key water user - in certain Near East & North African countries up to 95% of the exploitable water resources - and water availability and use will also impact SDG 2 on food security, careful monitoring of crop and water productivity and exploring possible opportunities to increase it, will be required. But how can we monitor the performance of water use in agriculture?
World Water Week discussion: can crop productivity be monitored?
With support from the government of the Netherlands, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) is developing a publicly accessible near real time database, using satellite data that will allow the monitoring of crop and water productivity. This database can be used to propose solutions to reduce water productivity gaps, while taking into account ecosystems services and the equitable use of water resources. Eventually, the proposed solutions should lead to an overall reduction of water stress. The discussion will focus on the approach followed and to what extent the data generated can be used in practice by policy makers, water managers and farmers.
Furthermore, in order to develop a core-sub indicator for SDG 6.4, ‘increase water use efficiency’, special satellite measurement techniques make it feasible nowadays to determine key data on agricultural production. The advantage of water productivity, rather than speaking in terms of water use efficiency, is that it can be converted into multiple benefits and services, such as economic value, nutrition, employment etc. With the help of international investment parties and private sector initiatives, the water productivity values can be transferred into accessible information for farmers, agribusinesses and policymakers to increase yields and to decrease water use.
Partnering with FAO
“This partnership started because of my connection with FAO; I’ve been involved as a consultant for strategic and application studies for the last 5 years. The MoU is concerned with water accounting and water productivity. Water accounting reports the overall water resources conditions in river basins. Water productivity is related to agriculture and describes the production, crop yield, or food that you can get per unit of water consumed. Together with FAO, we develop technologies that can operationally express the production per unit of water consumed rather than per unit of land. This is a paradigm shift and highly relevant for water scarce countries,” explains Wim Bastiaanssen.
Working via a multi-institutional approach
“The partnership is about creating global changes in water management and the UN is a good vehicle for that. Neither of our organizations can do that alone, but together and with CGIAR organizations like the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), we can make a change. Its uniqueness lies in the multi-institutional approach, with a shared drive that brings us together. I’m responsible for developing the water accounting procedures and water productivity reporting frameworks. I also scientifically advise FAO on how to implement these frameworks in the Middle East, which struggles with a severe water shortage. In my opinion, having people permanently present in developing countries is a prerequisite for success. The FAO regional offices fulfil that role exactly.”
Water accounting framework and water productivity score
“The water accounting frameworks are developed by an international team of experts, but if we want to get it across to various departments of water and agriculture in the world, we need FAO to act as an ambassador. As a scientist, you can write paper after paper, but if you don’t have ambassadors to promote your work, then your impact is zero. We’re also working on a water productivity score, to simplify the concept and explain it to laymen. The idea is a score between 1 to 10, so farmers, river basin organizations, etcetera know where they stand.” You can compare it with the Richter scale for earthquakes, so that all stakeholders can immediately interpret a particular situation.”
Remote sensing in Afghanistan
“One of the highlights concerns the Helmand basin in Afghanistan. It’s a typical basin where there is almost no hydro-meteorological data available and accessible, which makes it very difficult to scan a river basin and say if things could be improved. Their annual reporting programme on the river basin water status failed, so the Afghan government asked FAO and IHE Delft to use remote sensing through satellite data. That was a great success. Now, the FAO has promoted this concept at the most recent World Water Forum in Korea.”
Need for standardized input data for a global framework
“If we want to have global standards on water consumption, productivity, and accounting, then we must have better standardized input data. This past year, I’ve been motivating several leading groups in the Netherlands, United States, Australia and China to develop together global data sets based on earth observations for IHE Delft. This is a completely new opportunity for us: to have access to (remotely) measured information on the nexus of crops and water, that is otherwise very difficult to access. The experience demonstrates that these research laboratories are keen on working with IHE Delft, as we can assist them to implement their innovative products in countries like Ethiopia, India and Brazil. I feel that IHE Delft is the perfect Institute to help implement new global information products for the water sector and I’m glad to be working here.”
Wim G.M. Bastiaanssen is a professor of global water accounting for IHE Delft and professor of civil engineering and geosciences at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. Wim Bastiaanssen is an expert in earth observation technologies for land and atmospheric processes, with a specialization in river basin management and agricultural water management.