An Integrated Approach to Realize Multiple Benefits Across Water, Energy, Food, Forests, and Biodiversity

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As we mark World Water Week, water, land, energy, forest and biodiversity systems around the world are under extreme stress from climate change and other anthropogenic pressures. These systems are all critical to food and nutrition security, as well as rural livelihoods and the broader economy. These systems are also strongly interconnected: The availability of water and the health of ecosystems directly affect food security and nutrition, while a lack of access to clean energy can lead to the degradation of watersheds, forests, and biodiversity, as well as soil erosion that can damage infrastructure, lower agricultural productivity and undermine livelihoods.

But despite those many connections, efforts to address water, food, energy, ecosystem health and other challenges too often address only one system at a time, failing to consider potential impacts outside that narrow focus—to the point of undermining progress in other critical areas or overall sustainability.

How can this silo problem be overcome? The key is adopting a systems-based approach: Examining the synergies and tradeoffs of proposed innovations across systems and prioritizing those that best support joint progress across water, energy and food security, and ecosystem health.

CGIAR researchers have proposed a new research initiative to do just that in three key international river basins—drawing on the organization’s global resources to develop evidence that can help scale innovations and interventions that generate gains across sectors; strengthen governance across water, energy, food, forests and biodiversity systems; and support local capacity development and partnerships. Researchers will co-develop evidence-based tools and guidelines, inclusive business models, and collaborative platforms for sustainable water use that consider impacts across sectors for improved water, energy and food security, particularly for the poor.

This integrated support will empower actors in these water basins to improve water productivity while enhancing livelihoods, equality, and environmental health and biodiversity, achieving key sustainability and development goals.

Such an approach has many advantages. It provides a strong basis for coherent policies and strategies with benefits extending across sectors and other divides such as national/administrative boundaries, gender, income classes or cultural groups.

For example, considering food systems as part of a larger set of interdependent systems—including water, land and ecosystems—allows us to develop innovations outside the traditional focus on agriculture alone while alleviating growing systemic stresses on human and planetary health. Similarly, boosting water productivity and more inclusive access to clean energy—through innovations in solar systems, small hydropower, bioenergy, postharvest loss reduction and agro-processing—can help ensure sustainable and resilient food systems, while providing particular benefits to vulnerable groups such as rural women and resource poor farmers, who often are excluded from accessing improved technologies and their benefits.

Our recent experience in the Niger River Basin in West and Central Africa shows the value of this approach and how CGIAR researchers can enable it. The basin is home to more than 130 million people in nine countries—Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Mali, Niger and Nigeria—many suffering from chronic food insecurity and insufficient access to clean water and energy.

CGIAR researchers and partners worked with the Niger Basin Authority (NBA) to integrate criteria to assess tradeoffs and synergies across water, energy, food security and ecosystem health into its Operational Plan that spans more than 300 investment projects ranging from dam construction and irrigation to ecosystem restoration. Researchers co-developed a simple framework that allowed the basin authority and its investors to qualitatively rank proposed projects to meet energy, environmental, and food and nutrition security goals, taking into account synergies, tradeoffs across sectors and ways to mitigate potential negative impacts. Quantitative modeling complemented that assessment, for the more complex ranking of water and environmental sustainability goals, which involve upstream-downstream linkages.

The ranking allows the basin authority to prioritize its investments and better use limited resources to achieve key development goals without compromising ecosystem integrity.

There are also, unfortunately, compelling examples of failure when policymakers have focused on a single system or objective. The Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest freshwater lake, provides perhaps the most potent case study. The sea, which covers areas in both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, started to shrink rapidly in the 1960s, when officials of what was then the Soviet Union began diverting water from the rivers that fed it to irrigate ambitious agriculture projects with thirsty crops (e.g., cotton) and inefficient irrigation systems. In a matter of decades, the sea’s water level dropped sharply, forming several much smaller lakes, portions of which at times have dried up altogether. The region has suffered serious consequences from the singular irrigation focus, including degradation of drinking water quality, the elimination of fisheries, and harmful dust storms.

In recent years, CGIAR co-developed with the government of Uzbekistan more integrated approaches by jointly improving energy and water use efficiency in irrigation systems through more efficient technologies. A new policy to subsidize modern irrigation technology instead of fossil fuel reduced greenhouse gas emissions and improved crop yields and water availability for downstream water users and ecosystems.

Climate change and growing scarcity of land and water resources are further strengthening the interlinkages between water, food, energy and ecosystem health. Meeting these challenges, as well as the UN Food Systems Summit goals of resilient and nature-positive food systems, and more than half of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, requires urgent action in key breadbasket basins to achieve inclusive, sustainable development. Among them are South Asia’s Ganges and Indus basins, where unsustainable (ground)water abstraction, climate change, deforestation and biodiversity loss, and ineffective and incoherent policies put 7% of the world’s food production at risk, with potentially devastating impacts on well-being, health, and political stability for 1 billion people. There is a similar need in Central Asia, where glacial retreat, reliance on fossil fuels, and the depletion of the Aral Sea and other hydrological and ecological changes are aggravated by transboundary water conflicts, jeopardizing the region’s future. Many regions in Africa face rapidly growing food insecurity and poverty as a result of climate change, population growth and continued low agricultural productivity due to lack of access to key agricultural inputs such as irrigation and clean energy.

In these critical food-producing areas and others, an integrated approach to water, energy, food and ecosystem health is needed to help governments and other investors take steps to reduce hunger and poverty while strengthening environmental protections and sustainable growth. Looking beyond those individual challenges to consider tradeoffs and synergies will allow us to connect progress in one system with goals in other areas, all while building partnerships and strengthening inclusion.


Authored by: Stefan Uhlenbrook, CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE), and International Water Management Institute (IWMI), Colombo, Sri Lanka; and Claudia Ringler, CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE), and Deputy Director of the Environment and Production Technology division at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).


Header image: Cairo, Egypt. Agricultural island in the Nile river, upstream from the city skyscrapers. Photo by Mark Henley/Panos.


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