credit: Sanjiv de Silva/IWMI

WLE Legacy Symposium reflects on 10 years of impact

As the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) draws to a close after 10 years of research and action, a Legacy Symposium was held on Tuesday, November 30 to celebrate its remarkable achievements. Through a combination of presentations, videos, personal reflections and a wide-ranging panel discussion, the virtual event offered attendees the chance to celebrate WLE’s science-driven solutions for the sustainable management of water, land and ecosystems, as well as consider how these contributions can shape the future of One CGIAR.

WLE was established in 2011, at a time of growing awareness of the need to design and implement sustainable agricultural policies that included – rather than bypassed – small-scale farmers. In response, WLE set out to work with smallholder farmers and their communities throughout the Global South. Since then, the program has worked with over 300 partners to complete more than 200 projects in over 60 countries. Projects have covered all aspects of water, land and ecosystems management, from affordable, pro-poor flood insurance in India to innovative ecosystem health evaluations using soil spectral analysis in sub-Saharan Africa.

Improving livelihoods

Symposium participants were united in their praise of WLE’s efforts to improve livelihoods across the Global South. HE Dr Seleshi Bekele, former Minster of Water and Energy and now Chief Negotiator and Advisor on Transboundary Rivers and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, spoke warmly about WLE’s real-world impacts in Ethiopia. He praised its work on landscape restoration using exclosures and commended efforts by WLE and WeForest, a non-profit organization, to reforest the highly degraded Desa’a forest of northern Ethiopia.

The importance of WLE’s solutions-based impacts was reinforced by Pravin Parmer, Secretary of the Solar Pump Irrigator’s Cooperative Enterprise, the world’s first cooperative of its kind. Based in the village of Dhundi, in the Indian state of Gujarat, this WLE-supported initiative not only enables farmers to use solar power to run their irrigation pumps, but incentivizes them to sell surplus energy to the government. ‘Collectively, we’ve earned more than USD 20,000, which translates into an additional income of USD 1,350-2,000 per farmer each year,’ explained Parmer. ‘We’ve also prevented 365.6 tons of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere.’

Central to science-based solutions like these has been WLE’s work to document, disseminate and discuss findings. As IWMI Board Chair Dr Roberto Lenton noted in his opening remarks, ‘WLE has done a fantastic job of documenting and reporting, with clear evidence, the outcomes and impacts of its work.’ This theme was later picked up by Michael Victor, WLE Head of Communication from 2013 to 2017, in his celebration of WLE’s Thrive blog. ‘The Thrive blog was created to change the discourse around science messaging,’ he said. ‘Providing a space for scientists to think out loud, even when they held contradictory opinions, was quite revolutionary for communications at the time. It was risky, but it was worth it.’

Influencing One CGIAR

Looking to the future, there was widespread agreement among panellists and presenters that WLE had profoundly shaped the development of the new One CGIAR, and would continue to do so for years to come. Prof Jo Swinnen, Global Director of Systems Transformation of CGIAR and Director General of IFPRI, shared his perspectives on the ways in which WLE’s work has influenced One CGIAR’s 2030 Research and Innovation Agenda. In particular, he explained how the new agenda’s Action Area on Systems Transformation, as well as the NEXUS Gains and Transformational Agroecology initiatives, draw on WLE’s systems approach towards environmental health and biodiversity.

Participants were also clear that many challenges remained for those working with One CGIAR to provide solutions for water, land and ecosystems management. In his keynote presentation, Prof Olcay Unver, a former member of WLE’s Independent Steering Committee, explained how unsustainable practices continue to exacerbate climate change, pollution, land degradation and worsening water security – issues which are, in turn, placing unprecedented pressures on global agrifood systems. He also warned of the dangers of agricultural polarization, in which farming systems become increasingly concentrated into either large commercial holdings or small subsistence plots.

To tackle these challenges, Dr Stefan Uhlenbrook, WLE Program Director, stressed the importance of including youth in decision-making processes. This sentiment was endorsed by Ms Yvonne Tamba, a PhD student and Research Assistant at ICRAF who has worked with WLE on evidence-based decision making for the management of natural resources, particularly soils. She underlined the concerns felt by youth about climate change and food security, noting how the COVID-19 pandemic had exposed weaknesses in food and nutrition systems across the world.

Building on WLE’s legacy

As the two-hour symposium drew to a close, attendees reflected on WLE’s impressive legacy – from enhancing climate resilience, protecting ecosystems, and strengthening water and food security, particularly for the most vulnerable. In his closing remarks, Dr Mark Smith, Director General of IWMI, urged attendees to build on this remarkable body of work. ‘Our task now is to make sure that WLE’s tremendous legacy is carried forward – both internally, within One CGIAR, as well as externally with our partners,’ he concluded. ‘In this way we can continue to achieve real impacts for the sustainable management of water, land and ecosystems.’

View the video recording and full program.