On the Waterfront

In Senegal, USAID is supporting the introduction of solar-powered irrigation systems.
In Senegal, USAID is supporting the introduction of solar-powered irrigation systems.
Kyu Lee/Earth Institute

Food: Where Water and Energy Meet

At the Children’s Museum in Amman, Jordan, boys and girls are engaged in a high-stakes simulation. First, they act as farmers and haul water from the well to their fields and answer trivia questions about the water needs of different types of food. Next, they perform as city managers and battle the clock in order to distribute energy to the city grid.

These activities are part of “I am Change,” a new USAID-funded water and energy conservation exhibit. While the exhibit aims to be fun, water and energy are serious business in resource-scarce Jordan.

With climate change escalating and water supplies dwindling worldwide, it has never been more critical to ensure that resources are used as effectively and sustainably as possible to produce enough food to nourish a swelling global population. Many development practitioners are now realizing that food security programs are more effective when they prioritize efficient management of water and energy. The United Nations is exploring the link between water and energy and declaring that World Water Day 2014 on March 22nd be devoted to raising awareness about the relationship. USAID addressed the interconnection in its Water and Development Strategy 2013-2018, saying, “Effective comanagement of water and energy, including the integration of water, food, and energy programs, as well as support for and development of technology, can lead to significant returns on investment.”

The logic is straightforward: Food production is water-intensive; irrigation systems to water crops are energy-intensive; and energy production can be water-intensive. USAID’s Water and Development Strategy sums it up when it says, “Every drop of water that has to be pumped, moved, or treated to meet health and food needs requires energy.”

USAID is at the forefront of this water-energy-food security “nexus” approach. The Agency is working with local populations to promote smarter water and energy use, developing cutting-edge fuel-efficient technologies to irrigate crops, and exploring resource-efficient agricultural production methods. This integration is crucial to USAID’s work to usher in a sustainable future.

Awakening Public Responsibility

Jordan is on the frontlines of the water-energy-food security nexus. The nation’s Water Authority is the country’s largest consumer of electricity while agriculture consumes the majority of water supply. With groundwater reserves dwindling and increasing in salinity, the country is slated to face an absolute water shortage by 2025 if trends continue. Water and energy must be more effectively managed if the country is to avoid a debilitating food and health crisis.

USAID, the Government of Jordan, and other groups have made significant strides to upgrade water, energy, and irrigation infrastructure. But if these improvements are to be sustainable, individuals must change their behavior.

“What we want to do is create a sense of public responsibility so people will not only change their own behavior, but advocate for more responsible behavior by their neighbors and fellow citizens,” said Robert Cardinalli, chief of party of USAID/Jordan’s Public Action for Water, Energy, and Environment Project (PAP).

PAP is educating Jordan’s population about water and energy through person-to-person outreach, educational campaigns, and social media. The project is using these avenues to target influential groups with tailored messages. They are working with female religious leaders to educate 140,000 women, primarily from rural areas, about water and energy conservation. The religious leaders link these messages to religious teachings, ensuring that they resonate. These women can then teach their families and friends about the issues, leading to a ripple effect.

Children and young people are another key demographic. The Amman Children’s Museum exhibit is part of a drive to reach youth. “We are proud to have been able to construct and put together an enormous exhibit that tackles a very important and global issue worldwide,” said museum director Sawsan Dalaq. As part of this drive, the nation’s teachers are trained to reinforce the exhibit’s messages in the classroom to instill lifelong habits in the nation’s future leaders.

Farming Without Waste

Farmers benefit tremendously from effective water and energy management. Production methods that conserve water and energy can help farmers save money and boost yields while improving the environment.

USAID’s Bureau for Food Security supports 23 Feed the Future Innovation Labs at American universities through the U.S. Government’s Feed the Future Initiative. Research under the Innovation Labs includes exploring the most efficient small-scale irrigation methods, developing climate-resilient varieties of crucial cereals and legumes, and identifying ways to help livestock adapt to climate change. These innovations can reduce agricultural water and energy needs. “Research at the farm to watershed-level characterizes how sustainable intensification practices like conservation farming – no or low tillage, diverse cropping including leguminous perennials, and permanent soil cover – are able to maximize water capture from rainfall and retain it,” said Moffatt Ngugi of USAID’s Bureau for Food Security.

USAID is putting this research into practice to help farmers around the world boost yields and adapt to climate change. In Southeast Asia, USAID’s Cambodia Helping Address Rural Vulnerabilities and Ecosystem Stability (Cambodia HARVEST) program is teaching farmers techniques that save water and energy such as contour planting and watershed management planning. The program also distributes flood-resistant, drought-tolerant, and short-duration forms of rice seed so farmers can grow this staple crop using less water and fertilizer, which requires a lot of energy to produce. In addition, they are repairing, installing, and reinforcing the linings of culverts and spillways in irrigation canals. These upgrades will enable farmers to irrigate their crops without wasting water or fuel.

The program expects its interventions to boost the incomes of 70,000 households. Based on the results that they have seen, farmers plan to continue these sustainable methods in the long-term. “I will continue with these techniques because I’m seeing yield increases,” explained rice farmer Choem Phal.

Convincing Consumers

When people see the benefits of saving water and energy through methods like watershed management planning and using improved seeds, they, like Choem, become enthusiastic conservationists. However, convincing people to initially change their behavior can be challenging. People generally need concrete evidence that water and energy conservation is in their best interests before making major lifestyle changes.

In Jordan, USAID cultivates local partners and uses a social marketing approach, which employs traditional methods of commercial marketing to change behavior. When PAP set out to make eco-friendly dual flush toilets standard in new residential buildings, they realized that builders would be more likely to install these toilets if buyers were asking for them. PAP is convincing consumers of the toilets’ superiority through billboards, radio advertisements, posters, and social media, and they are gradually becoming standard features in new building projects.

This type of grassroots approach has proven effective around the world. In Jordan, community members are now spreading conservation messages on their own. “We’re getting reports back almost every week where our approach has been replicated by communities who hear what we did, sought out tools to implement it, and implemented it on their own,” said Mr. Cardinalli, “If you’re working in development, that’s your dream.”

A Partnering Approach

USAID is now nurturing water and energy innovations through its Grand Challenges for Development (GCDs). The GCDs call on leading thinkers, including scientists, students, and entrepreneurs, to identify creative solutions to address a range of development problems. The most promising ideas are awarded USAID funding.

Two GCDs address the water-energy-food security nexus. One challenge, “Securing Water for Food,” is identifying the best ways to make more water available for food and reduce the amount of water used in food production, processing, and distribution. The second challenge, “Powering Agriculture,” is developing clean energy agricultural innovations.

A winner of the Powering Agriculture challenge is Columbia University’s Earth Institute, which has launched a program to install solar-powered irrigation systems in Potou, Senegal. In Potou, most farmers currently rely on gasoline or diesel-fueled pumps to run the irrigation systems that water their crops. The fuel is expensive to purchase and transport and a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions that exacerbate the effects of climate change and negatively impact farmer’s yields. Sunshine, however, is free and abundant in this coastal area of Senegal.

If the method works, it could revolutionize farming in the region. Irrigation would be more affordable and environmentally sustainable while farmers’ incomes and food security would increase. This could be transformative in Potou, where the majority of inhabitants work in agriculture-related occupations, soil fertility is declining, and one-fifth of children under 5 are malnourished.

Potou’s farmers are already excited. “I am encouraged by the idea of using solar power,” said 32-year-old onion farmer Kallidou Dia.

The researchers are optimistic too. “If we can show success with our new model of energy production and transfer, maybe it can catch on in the whole region. That could have a big impact on greenhouse gas emissions, as well as saving farmers money,” said Brett Gleitsmann, a water systems analyst at the Earth Institute.

Dave Ferguson, deputy director of USAID’s Office of Science and Technology, said that innovations like these hold a key to a food-secure, water-secure, energy-secure future from Cambodia to Senegal. “We believe that by sourcing and accelerating innovations, we can help address critical issues at the nexus of water, food, and energy and improve the speed, efficacy, cost, scale, and sustainability of our development efforts.”

K. Unger Baillie

For More Information

World Water Day 2014 website

Powering Agriculture Grand Challenge on Twitter

Virtual Tour of USAID “I am Change” Exhibit