Remember the global food crisis of 2008? Disappointing wheat harvests in Europe, the US, and Australia led to a shortfall in global supplies, and poorer countries and consumers couldn’t afford grain that had suddenly become much more expensive. In the US, families struggled to stretch their food budgets; in 14 other countries, food-related violence erupted.
Memories of that recent crisis have stirred as Russia (which suffered from drought this summer) has banned exports of its wheat and other countries have faced droughts or flooding. After the cost of bread jumped 30%, riots broke out in Mozambique, killing ten people. Food prices are still 30% below the levels they reached in 2008, and the size of the global wheat crop is large by historical standards, but that hasn’t kept people from worrying. The New York Times’ Neil MacFarquhar has details.
Meanwhile, the International Water Management Institute has released a report sounding an alarm about millions of farmers’ vulnerability to erratic rainfall – something likely to get worse as climate disruption continues. This is likely to translate into widespread food insecurity, particularly in Africa and Asia. The report’s authors urge quick and extensive investments in diverse forms of water storage. Their news release gives some examples of small-scale storage options that can help farmers currently dependent on rainfall improve their food security and economic prospects:
… the IWMI study also advocates giving more weight to a continuum of small-scale storage options, citing strong evidence that when such measures are well planned, they can contribute importantly to local food security and economic growth.
Field studies in various semi-arid environments, for example, have proven the effectiveness of using small planting basins to “harvest” water, together with targeted application of organic or inorganic fertilizer. In Zimbabwe, such basins have been shown to boost maize yields, whether rainfall is abundant or scarce, while in Niger, they have permitted three- or four-fold increases in millet yields.
In the northeast of India’s Rajasthan State, the construction of about 10,000 water harvesting structures–intended mainly to recharge groundwater–has made it possible to irrigate about 14,000 hectares, benefiting some 70,000 people. Whereas previously, farmers barely had enough water to produce grains, now they can also grow vegetables and other cash crops.
Similarly, the construction of more than 90,000 underground water storage tanks in China is benefiting a million farmers.
Case studies suggest that combinations of different storage options can be particularly
effective. In southern Sri Lanka, for example, the construction of a large water storage
reservoir, which was then linked to five previously created small reservoirs brought about a
400 percent increase in crop production.
But in some places, the results of major water storage initiatives have been uneven. In
Ethiopia, for example, one study showed that groundwater wells and small dams reduced
poverty by 25 to 50 percent. But another analysis in the country’s Amhara region found that most of the approximately 4,000 water harvesting ponds constructed from 2003 to 2008 were no longer functioning, mainly because of poor site selection, technical failures and weak community involvement in maintenance.
“None of these options is a panacea,” said [report lead author Matthew] McCartney. “They all have pros and cons, which depend on their inherent characteristics, on the way they are planned and managed, and on the conditions at specific sites.”
Whether or not Russia’s halt to wheat exports truly does touch off a global food crisis this time, farming in poor countries is likely to get much harder as the global climate changes. Water storage is probably just one of the many adaptations that’ll be needed to keep people fed.