Research and Innovations
for a more Sustainable, Resilient
and Healthier Planet

WLE 202021 Research Highlights

After a decade of innovative science and impact, 2021 is the culminating year of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE). We are continuing to build momentum and working with our indispensable partners to ensure that agricultural transformations persist and proliferate along more sustainable pathways. We are proud of the legacy we have established: a suite of proven solutions that countries and communities can adopt to address their development challenges, along with unique insights and experiences that will guide future research and the design and implementation of future solutions.

WLE has always followed a vision of a world where agriculture thrives within supportive, vibrant ecosystems while delivering enduring prosperity for farming communities.

In 2020 and 2021, this vision might often have seemed distant: COVID-19 and its socio-economic consequences, such as food shortages and rising poverty, combined with droughts, floods, continuing deforestation, biodiversity decline and soil degradation, bore little resemblance to that thriving world. Yet these challenges only reinforced the critical importance of such a vision and the research that flows from it.

Amid a new spirit of rethinking and renewing built infrastructure, our work on the natural infrastructure that complements it continues to gain global recognition.

As we transition to One CGIAR we are synthesizing this work under key themes, which are illustrated with a selection of research highlights below. Within each theme, we are also focusing on signs of positive change around the world, which are plentiful, despite all the disruptions of the past year. If global challenges to agriculture and ecosystems have grown, so has hope for our collective ability to build better food systems.

Productivity and resilience

Increasing productivity is no longer the solitary goal of agricultural research for development; the resilience of farming communities and food systems has firmly established itself as an equal need. In truth, productivity and resilience are inseparable, and WLE has demonstrated many ways of approaching both goals jointly. Together, these approaches are making food systems more secure and sustainable in an uncertain world.

Entrepreneurs are bringing solar-powered pumps to African farmers with the help of interactive maps.
Uzbekistan is shifting subsidies from energy to more efficient irrigation technologies.
Community gene banks containing more diverse wheat types are boosting household food security in Ethiopia.
A satellite-based monitoring system allows countries to react faster when harvests are threatened.
A water users’ association in Myanmar raised crop production despite a drought and pandemic.
A new framework ensures solar irrigation is inclusive and environmentally sustainable.

Nature-based solutions

Understanding natural processes and systems is more than just the next best thing in agriculture and natural resource management. It represents a different way to think about the challenge of pursuing development within critical environmental and natural resource limits by recognizing how the integrity of natural systems can help agriculture flourish while at the same time support water, land and ecosystems. Interest in nature-based solutions is strong and growing, and researchers are starting to develop much needed evidence on what works where.

Ethiopia is overhauling national water policies based on evidence of the multiple values of its precious water resources.
An advanced tool helps companies track and maintain the richness of agrobiodiversity in sustainable food systems.
Major players in Colombia’s dairy industry are coming together to end deforestation in their value chain.
The return of a traditional water storage system rejuvenated an upland watershed in central India.
Water storage gaps are growing worldwide. We need an integrated approach.
CGIAR-supported innovations tap into natural cycles for more robust and sustainable production.

Landscape approaches

A turn from projects and sectors to the whole landscape is WLE’s answer to the question of how to achieve productive, social and environmental aims at larger scale. Landscape approaches address processes and systems in an integrated and multi-disciplinary manner. They are characterized by diversity, share qualities of adaptiveness and local stakeholder involvement and use data innovatively to strategize and develop targeted solutions.

Jordanian communities are rehabilitating thousands of hectares of degraded drylands.
An Ethiopian coalition is turning a new national soil and agronomy data-sharing policy into soil-specific advice for farmers.
A water information platform in Honduras is informing investment decisions from the hyper-local to the watershed level.
Using the Land Degradation Surveillance Framework allows more national and sub-national authorities to track soil health.
Harnessing the potential of the Water–Energy–Food (WEF) Nexus – for more integrated development planning.
The European Union plans to devote 10% of its agricultural landscapes to the conservation of natural and semi-natural habitats.

Gender, youth and inclusion

WLE integrates gender equality, youth and social inclusion into multi-disciplinary programs for insights into the roots of exclusion. In early 2021, we completed an internal systematic analysis of gender and social inclusion research across the program. The analysis shows a progressive shift in understanding gender, from a limited focus on women as a group to understanding how gender inequalities intersect with poverty, age and other disparities across sectors, institutions and communities.

Gender inequalities exposed by COVID-19 opened up opportunities to support women farmers and leaders in Nepal.
In East African refugee communities, a gender-inclusive approach proved key to questions of food and energy.
Groups of marginal and tenant farmers in South Asia demonstrated the power of pooling their land, labor, capital and skills.
Text mining and artificial intelligence demonstrate how gender is presented or obscured in land restoration.
Focusing attention on the complex gendered dynamics of urban food value chains.

Innovation for transforming food systems

Food systems need to change, and fast, to meet the Sustainable Development Goals. With that message, the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture Intensification (CoSAI) began its mission in 2020: to influence public and private support to innovation in order to rapidly scale up sustainable agricultural intensification in the Global South.

Driving innovation investments for sustainable agriculture in the Global South.
The global investment gap in innovation for sustainable agriculture intensification.
CoSAI collaborates on innovative food system solution portal – to strengthen food and nutrition security.

Transforming global food systems

WLE has been making significant contributions to the preparatory processes of the United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS). Since 2020 we have been co-coordinating UNFSS Action Track 3 (Boost nature-positive production), contributing to Action Track 5 (Build resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks and stress) and organizing and participating in UNFSS Global and Independent Summit Dialogues. CoSAI has also contributed evidence to the Summit’s cross-cutting ‘Lever of Change’ on innovation.

Water and cross-sectoral collaboration are key to food system transformations.
Water: the game changer for food systems.
Food system resilience through integrated natural resource management.
Transforming food systems from the ground up: how groundwater enhances Africa’s food security and prosperity.

Publications highlights

Journal articles

Forest and woodland replacement patterns following drought-related mortality
Global and regional potential of wastewater as a water, nutrient and energy source
Rethinking water for SDG 6
A knowledge brokering framework for integrated landscape management
Which practices co-deliver food security, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and combat land degradation and desertification?
Improved water management is central to solving the water-energy-food trilemma in Lao PDR
The response of water and nutrient dynamics and crop yield to conservation agriculture in the Ethiopian highlands
What happens after technology adoption? Gendered aspects of small-scale irrigation technologies in Ethiopia, Ghana and Tanzania
Evaluating the global state of ecosystems and natural resources: within and beyond the SDGs
The devil’s in the details: data exchange in transboundary waters
Global and regional potential of wastewater as a water, nutrient and energy source
Forest and woodland replacement patterns following drought-related mortality

Books, chapters, guides and working papers

Increasing the benefits and sustainability of irrigation through the integration of fisheries
A joint stocktaking of CGIAR work on forest and landscape restoration
Gender in urban food systems
Global change and investments in smallholder irrigation for food and nutrition security in sub-Saharan Africa
Including food systems, biodiversity, nutrition and health in the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework

Briefs and reports

Introducing co-composting to fecal sludge treatment plants in Benin and Burkina Faso
Business models for fecal sludge management in India
Community water management and agricultural extension services
Shifting gender relations in agriculture and irrigation in the Nepal Tarai-Madhesh
Challenges and potential solutions to social inclusion in an aggregator model to promote weather index insurance in Bangladesh
Enhanced water security and energy access: key investments for Sub-Saharan Africa

International reports with WLE leadership or contributions

IPCC Special Report on climate change and land
Background paper for African climate negotiators
World Bank WLE paper on sustainable irrigation expansion
African Development Bank WLE paper on farmer-led irrigation in Ethiopia
Climate change and land: IPCC Special Report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems
World Water Development Report 2020: water and climate change (chapter 4)
Pathways to sustainable land-use and food systems
Water and nutrition: harmonizing actions for the United Nations Decade of Action on Nutrition and the United Nations Water Action Decade
World Water Development Report 2020: water and climate change (chapter 12)

WLE in the news

Crisis in the Himalayas: climate change and unsustainable development (Financial Times).
How to defuse the human waste time bomb in low-income countries (Aljazeera).
We could become more resilient to future pandemics by protecting nature (Independent).
Is green the new grey? If not, why not? (Water Science Policy).
Global groundwater is threatened by unsustainable practices amid climate crisis (Truthout).
Getting the most out of every last drop of water (Devex).
Fixing the global food system after coronavirus (The Hill).

Thank you to WLE’s Partners and Donors


WLE is grateful for the support of CGIAR Trust Fund Contributors, including direct support from

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