A Key Text on Water

Some thoughts from an economic perspective on  Water for Food: Water for Life: A Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture (1)

The publication of this book in 2007 was an important event in the field of water resources management.  The outcome of a research programme by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), its claim to be comprehensive is justified in many ways including:

  • recognition of the legitimate claims on scarce water supplies of agriculture and of the natural environment;
  • regard for political and institutional as well as scientific and technical considerations in water management;
  • a global perspective, drawing examples from many countries and different climate zones;
  • consideration of gender issues in water use and management.

The book contains much careful analysis, and the occasional strong judgment – as on p 197 where progress in reforming water management policies and institutions is described as “embarrassingly bad”.  It is not light reading, but the reader is helped by overviews at the start of each chapter, and by many well-chosen tables, charts, maps and illustrations, all in colour.  An annoying omission, when using the book for reference, is the lack of an index.  At the beginning is a 37-page Summary for Decision Makers, also available as a free download on the IWMI website (2).

The book’s conclusions are wide-ranging.  Here is a small personal selection:

  1. In its projections to 2050, there are as might be expected various scenarios relating to crop yields, areas under cultivation, and irrigation, but also (pp 119-126) a “trade scenario” with increased food production in water-abundant countries supporting higher exports to those where water is scarce.  Trade can make an important contribution to the alleviation of water scarcity.  For example, it is stated (p 122) that global demand for irrigation water in 1995 would have been 11% higher, had it not been for trade in cereals.
  2. The importance of rainfed agriculture is emphasised (pp 316-347).  There is huge potential for environmentally-friendly and relatively low-cost productivity improvements in rainfed agriculture through improved soil conservation techniques and small-scale supplemental irrigation.
  3. A chapter on water and livestock (pp 485-511) explains why many poor people keep animals and why they may be rational in doing so.  I incline to the view that large-scale meat production is a wasteful use of resources, but this gave me pause for thought.  It seems for example that little is known about water productivity in livestock production (pp 507-508).

Although the book refers sometimes to economic considerations, it does not pretend to be a work of economics.  It would however provide valuable background for anyone studying or researching water from a natural resource economics perspective.  To an economist, the book’s use of the term “water scarcity” appears a little odd.  Its definition (p 62) brings together three elements: whether people in an area can access sufficient water to meet their needs (including food production as well as drinking and washing), whether the water is affordable to them, and whether sufficient water is left over for minimum environmental requirements.  But a lack of consistency is apparent when a map of areas of water scarcity (p 63) refers not to “need” but to “demand”.  That there are major problems regarding human access to water and environmental degradation in many parts of the world is not in question.  But needs are often flexible, as the cereal trade example illustrates.  Affordability is a matter of degree reflecting the other claims on a person’s income.  And the assessment of environmental requirements inevitably involves value judgments.  There is a need here to clarify concepts, and one essential element that is missing is the relationship between demand and price.

Overall, this is a very good book.  Five years on, its many statistics are slightly out of date, but its analyses and conclusions will surely remain of value for some time.  I do not know if the IWMI plans to issue an updated edition, or even to repeat the full underlying research programme (its website gives no indication in this respect).  But water is such a key resource that a regular assessment of this kind would be very worthwhile.

Notes and References

  1. Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture (2007)  Water for Food, Water for Life: A Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture  London: Earthscan, and Colombo: International Water Management Institute
  2. http://www.iwmi.cgiar.org/assessment/
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