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Global mechanism for sustainable water management

Huub Savenije | 14 February 2013

In the global water agenda two issues call for urgent global action: the mechanism of carbon taxing and the shortage of phosphate fertilizer.

In the global water agenda, there are two issues of great significance that are receiving insufficient attention and that call for urgent action at international level. These issues are related to global food production, the alleviation of rural poverty and the sustainable use of land and water resources.

1. Making smallholder farming productive

Water is central to all human needs (food, health, safety, income) and activities (agriculture, industry, transport). In the developing world, poverty, food production and sustainable land use are closely linked to smallholder rain-fed farming. Efforts to improve the production systems of small and mostly poor farmers have been marginally successful, particularly in Africa. There is, however, one way in which the global community could address this issue and solve a wide range of interconnected global problems at the same time. The mechanism already exists, but is used for the wrong purposes: it is the mechanism of carbon taxing.

Farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa are almost completely dependent on rainfall for their food production and household income. Large-scale irrigation is hardly feasible for a wide range of reasons. The introduction of smallholder system innovations, such as rainwater harvesting, supplementary irrigation from shallow groundwater, small-scale water diversions, crop diversification, etc. would not only improve farm productivity by soil and water conservation, it would also increase carbon storage in the soil and enhance carbon sequestration in farming produce. If implemented at global scale, this would reduce carbon emissions substantially. At present the funds collected through carbon taxing flow mostly into the expansion and production of commercial plantations, the effectiveness and benefits of which are doubtful. On the other hand, investments in smallholder farming would generate multiple benefits: enhance carbon sequestration, poverty reduction, soil and water conservation, erosion reduction, soil fertilization, diversification of agricultural production, regional development, and food production for local and global markets. It would require a global convention to redirect carbon taxes to this more effective, more equitable and more sustainable mechanism.

2. Deferring a phosphate crisis

Another water issue of global dimension is the upcoming shortage of phosphate fertilizer (P). This essential fertilizer, one of the main constituents of the ‘green revolution’, is a finite resource originating from a limited number of mining resources. Estimates of the duration of the exploitable resources are between 50 and 100 years. This means that there is a looming global food crisis, of immeasurable political dimensions, far worse than the present financial crisis. The solution for this immense problem lies in the simple and technically feasible recycling of all human and animal waste (mostly urine). Solving this problem would at the same time solve problems relating to the eutrophication of surface waters and the associated damage to ecosystems. As this is a global problem, a solution can only be found at global level, although the technical interventions required relate to closing local water cycles. A UN convention for the full recycling of phosphates is needed to safeguard global food production for the future. A global resolution to tax phosphate consumers and to use the funds to fully recycle phosphate into reusable fertilizer would be sufficient as an instrument to fund a ‘second green revolution’ to defer hunger and to revitalize the water resources system.

Photo credit main picture: World Bank Photo Collection

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About the author

Huub Savenije

Hubert (Huub) Savenije is Professor of Hydrology at the Delft University of Technology and presid...

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