Putting water at the heart of sustainable development

A joint message from our Director-General and Board Chair

Dr Donald Blackmore
Donald Blackmore
Jeremy Bird
Jeremy Bird

Over the past 30 years, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) has broadened its role from being a scientific research institute focused on irrigation to one that is increasingly responsive to the complex development challenges around water resources facing society.

This means that we research issues such as population growth, urbanization and climate change from the perspective of what they mean for water security and sustainable water use, now and in the future.

Much of this work is taking place through the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE), which is led by IWMI and combines the resources of 10 other CGIAR centers and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

On target for people and planetOne of the key issues WLE is exploring is how to achieve sustainable intensification of agriculture while preserving and enhancing the integrity of the ecosystems upon which we all depend. This includes work to recover nutrients from wastewater and safely reuse them for food production, and deploying the latest technology to increase the resilience of farmers to climate shocks. Work to ensure the health of rivers, and the many environmental, economic and cultural services they provide, continues to be crucial.

Many of the forthcoming United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will also be closely influenced by water. In 2014, IWMI was invited to help develop indicators on water quality, wastewater reuse, water-use efficiency and ecosystem health. This resulted in the major report, On target for people and planet. It stresses that, as the world moves toward a projected population of 9 billion people by 2050, competing demands for water will intensify. Solutions to the issues that may arise as a result of this must be appropriate to local contexts.

IWMI also continues to be an active partner in the CGIAR Research Programs on Aquatic Agricultural Systems (AAS); Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS); Dryland Systems; Integrated Systems for the Humid Tropics; and Policies, Institutions and Markets (PIM).

The year also saw IWMI sharpen its focus to ensure its research can have a positive influence on a range of stakeholders, including policymakers, water users and, more recently, private enterprises.

One venture in Ghana saw IWMI entering into a partnership with a local government authority and a private waste management company to convert fecal sludge into fertilizer pellets for use in agriculture. The aim of this is to provide private companies with commercial incentives for the collection and treatment of waste, and the safe recovery and reuse of valuable nutrients.

IWMI also worked with governments in several African countries to establish the potential impact of foreign land acquisitions on water resources and local livelihoods. With partners such as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and FAO, IWMI is supporting the efforts of the African Ministers’ Council on Water (AMCOW) to develop policies on land acquisitions that benefit local communities and protect ecosystems.

IWMI’s research on the ‘water-food-energy nexus’ also continued in 2014. This multi-disciplinary approach aims to examine trade-offs across sectors, and balance productivity goals with equity and sustainability concerns. IWMI has established close working relationships with many governments to help develop policies that address these issues, and to weigh up the opportunities and risks associated with new technologies.

Rapid expansion in the use of solar-powered irrigation pumps in India, for example, could help to reduce the demand for energy and cut greenhouse gas emissions. However, without carefully designed programs, the increased pumping that occurs could threaten the already dwindling reserves of groundwater in some areas. In 2014, IWMI researchers recommended policy reforms that could enable farmers to sell surplus solar power back to the national grid. By producing such a solar ‘cash crop’, farmers could be encouraged to use groundwater more judiciously.

At a World Bank conference, IWMI researchers also discussed the need to look beyond water productivity, and use water accounting tools to better understand the demand and supply of water in rivers and tributaries. IWMI scientists are evaluating conjunctive storage technologies that can be used to increase water supplies during dry seasons, and moderate flood damage during the monsoons, for example.

By combining this kind of work with IWMI’s use of new satellite technology to better predict and monitor droughts and floods (both of which are expected to become more frequent and extreme as a result of climate change and land degradation), policymakers can be given a range of ‘smart’ options to boost food production and protect livelihoods.

These options include flood forecasting and drought monitoring tools. Developed by IWMI and its partners in Nigeria, the tools are part of a project to assist the government in increasing agricultural production and helping smallholder farmers to profitably engage in dry-season agriculture. These ‘big data’ applications combine satellite images of vegetation with weather data.

In 2014, the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) made IWMI a regional support office for UN-SPIDER (United Nations Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response) which facilitates the sharing of satellite information to better plan for and respond to natural disasters.

With 2015, IWMI’s 30th anniversary year, now well underway, we are as committed as ever to the development of innovative solutions that will help improve livelihoods and contribute to the Institute’s vision of ‘A water-secure world’.