Minimal data on water usage causes greater uncertainty for future

By Ann Millington

CIUDAD OBREGON, Mexico – Despite growing concern in the global community about water supply, data on water use are surprisingly limited, says a leading economist.

Uma Lele, senior adviser at the Global Water Partnership and former World Bank economist, told the Borlaug Summit on Wheat for Food Security there was not enough data to make accurate speculations about water and agriculture in 2050.

When asked to speak at the Borlaug summit, Lele made hundreds phone calls. She discovered that data on groundwater, irrigation systems, regulation and modernization of water systems is sparse.

“There are very few independent studies, and almost no studies which measure outcomes,” Lele said.

Uma Lele poses for a photo on Friday, March 28, 2014. Photo by Ann Millington

Uma Lele poses for a photo on Friday, March 28, 2014. Photo by Ann Millington

Soil management seems to be taking precedence over water management, even though per capita water availability is rapidly declining. And irrigation is rapidly increasing in food production.

In developing countries almost half of all crop production is aided by irrigation. Sixty percent of cereal crops are grown using irrigation. Much of this irrigation growth is fueled by expediting groundwater use. But as irrigation grows, the data collected on irrigation systems used, their efficiency and policies implemented on water use are not growing alongside it. Lele found little to no reliable data.

Many of the studies Lele looked at had little description. The end product, operations information, management improvement or any productivity increases were not listed.

“You don’t get many answers to these questions by looking at the studies,” Lele said.

The astonishing lack of information makes it difficult to predict water use, especially considering the variables of agricultural land expansion, available nutrients and climate change.

Despite the continually small pool of data, Lele said she can predict that without improvements in the performance of irrigation systems, the water sector will continue to have problems. Poorly designed and underperforming systems are continually used.

Modernization must occur, the implementations must be swift and conservation must become a priority, she said.

“Without regulation of water, agriculture will continue to increase its dependence on water,” Lele said.

Incentives for water conservation and improved outcomes are needed.

“We should get away from the complacency of denial that we don’t have a water problem,” said Lele.

Conflict will rise when worldwide water shortages occur, experts say.

More than 90 percent of the population lives in countries with shared river basins. Nearly 2 billion people worldwide depend on groundwater. There are about 300 trans-boundary aquifers.

“We must recognize the Jevons Effect of Change,” Lele said, referring to the idea that as technology progresses, efficient use of resources follows.

The global community needs to begin now to properly document these changes, she said.

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