When water efficiency increases water risk: the need for context-based water targets

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Shared water challenges in agriculture

Few places on Earth illustrate shared water challenges and water risk like California’s Central Valley. The fertile valley, endowed with extensive groundwater supplies, also harnesses the snowpack and rivers of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and combines with extensive sunshine to create one of the most important agricultural regions in the world. Water use rates have exceeded annual renewable supplies resulting in the depletion of the underlying aquifers. Wells have dried up and drilling schedules have extended out many months.

So how does business respond to such a challenge? First, mitigate the risk by drilling deeper wells (often to the tune of $1 million dollars or more). Second, invest in more efficient irrigation techniques. Third, perhaps source from somewhere else and hedge the risk? All somewhat logical responses, but ones that may not ultimately save the local agricultural economy, or reduce your risk.

Why efficiency is not sufficient?

Over the past decade, many of the farmers in the Central Valley were thinking the same thing. Concerned about dwindling groundwater levels, they installed state-of-the-art drip irrigation infrastructure to replace the high-evaporation flood irrigation technology. The result? Aquifer levels began dropping even faster than before. What farmers did not realize, was that the “wasted” water from the flood irrigation was in fact helping to recharge the aquifer. By increasing efficiency, farmers actually increased their water risk exposure and put their assets (e.g., wells, irrigation infrastructure) at greater risk of becoming stranded assets. The debate soon became: do I rip out the drip irrigation and go back to flood irrigation?

Now I’m not suggesting that drip is bad and flood irrigation is good. Higher technology irrigation systems have many benefits and farmers can achieve higher yields due to improvements in the timing and uniformity of irrigation deliveries. However, these approaches are seldom achieved by taking a wider ‘systems’ approach and often do not ‘save water’. Remember, for most field crops, yield is directly related to crop water consumption. Higher technology irrigation systems typically achieve higher yields, which are achieved at the cost of greater transpiration. As a result, as yields increase, the consumptive use of water on a farm field actually increases. Furthermore, additional water availability can also result in an expansion of cropping area, further increasing consumptive use.

There are arguments to suggest that humanity will need more food and higher yields will be a necessary component. However, we must recognize that this increased food production will consume more water. However, if we want to save water and provide water back to ecosystems and other users, we need to be honest with ourselves.
What I am suggesting, if we want to save water for other users, is that we need to consider the context, and what happens to “saved water”. We must understand the linked socio-economic & hydrologic systems when it comes to water or we put both at risk.

What exactly is saved water?

The concept and controversy of “saved water” has been around for some time – but has recently re-emerged in response to the push by the business community to solve their own water challenges. Indeed, even the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG Target 6.4) begins with “Substantially increase water-use efficiency across all sectors…” What has always been unclear (and what remains unclear) is who benefits when efficiency improves? As greater yields are achieved, land and product become more profitable – hence any water saved gets used to expand production. In select cases (where the hydrology permits), it may be put back into aquifers, while in some other cases, it is sold to other users, or provided back to communities and ecosystems. The point being: saved water ultimately goes somewhere and serves some other purpose, but is often shrouded in mystery.

Driving greater efficiency to solve our collective water problems is an attractive intoxicating idea. But the problem is that this simplified view of water use and efficiency is held and promoted by an increasing array of stakeholders (water experts, companies, investors, donors, NGO’s, academics, etc.) whose interests lay much closer to selling ideas and technological solutions than the long term sustainability of river basins.

Considering the context: shifting from water risk mitigation to abatement

Water risks are a function of physical challenges (e.g., scarcity, pollution, flooding), reputational challenges (e.g., upset local residents), and regulatory challenges (e.g., lax enforcement). These challenges are invariably shared. Companies have traditionally developed water risk mitigation strategies which help to protect against risks, but do not affect the risk itself.

The world of carbon and climate change is a useful analog. Greenhouse gas mitigation (e.g., shifting from coal to solar) is about risk abatement; extreme weather event adaptation (e.g., flood defences) is about risk mitigation. Risk is often thought of as probability times impact. While mitigation reduces the financial impact, abatement is an effort to fundamentally reduce the probability. As the world reached an historic agreement in Paris at COP21, companies were aligning around a science-driven approach to determining meaningful carbon reduction abatement contributions. These have been called “science-based targets” by a group of NGOs (WWF, WRI, CDP) along with the UN Global Compact (representing over 8,000 companies) that have spearheaded an effort to engage companies to set meaningful carbon targets.

The launch of context-based water stewardship targets

Water is now following suit. Since water is not carbon (water varies in time, space, and in quality to name a few differences), meaningful targets in the water space will need to be tied to the local context. Such context-based targets also need to have their roots in science and the hydrological limits that define sustainability. In Stockholm at World Water Week, the same players (WWF, WRI, CDP, the UN Global Compact) combined with The Nature Conservancy to release a new paper on context-based water stewardship targets. This represents the beginning of a long journey to develop more meaningful targets that drive back to addressing shared water challenges and thereby abate water risks.
The coming months will see discussion, debate, piloting and partnership as water practitioners from all camps begin to put the concept into action. Thankfully, we have a lot to build from:

– The SDGs provide a robust framework,
– Learning from the carbon space abounds (e.g.,
we have steadily improving water data, models, and tools such as the Water Risk Filter,
there are committed corporate entities with the backing of a supportive investor community,
– An increasingly strong evidence base for effective conservation interventions is emerging; and we’re building models and tools for collective action.
The challenge is considerable, but in the words of Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” We now need brave individuals and companies to join us in setting bold, new context-based water targets.
We need to nuance people’s understanding of water efficiency by solidly setting interventions in a wider context, improve transparency and knowledge around saved water, and solve the shared water challenges facing our basins to ensure that sustainable business, communities and ecosystems are equally accounted for. Our shared future depends on it.

Establishing context-based water stewardship targets : a discussion paper (PDF)

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