Innovation and integration will help prevent global water crises

In an Expert Focus article for Waterbriefing, David Smith, Executive Director at Stantec discusses how Innovation and integration will help prevent global water crises and how invention at the intersection of water, energy and agriculture is emerging as a hotspot and attracting growing investment. 

David Smith: Record temperatures hit the UK during the summer of 2018, putting huge pressure on the country’s natural resources and subsequently the agricultural sector. As a result, meat, vegetable and dairy prices are set to rise “at least” 5% in the coming months because of the widespread drought and crop failures across the country. As average temperatures rise on a global scale year-on-year, the way we view the relationship between water, energy and agriculture needs to evolve – an integrated approach is required.

Invention at the intersection of water, energy and agriculture is emerging as a hotspot and attracting growing investment. There is increasing demand for radical innovation, driven by widespread fears about the impacts of global warming on water supplies and food production. From the widespread adoption of ecosystem thinking, to machines as inventors, the future of innovation indicates rapid and radical change.

Over the next decade, systemic, accelerating and radical innovation will likely herald the emergence of an age of mass-automation, cross-border electronic trading in ideas and remote manufacturing. Entirely novel forms of socially inclusive innovation may emerge to create a new economy, focused on sustainability, well-being, quality of life and regeneration of the biosphere.

Breaking boundaries

As some of the boundaries between water, energy and agriculture begin to break down, innovative, system-wide strategies are beginning to be recognised as the principal solution to improving resilience and resource efficiency, and therefore economic performance.

For example, embracing precision agriculture gives the sector the opportunity to monitor, automate and manage water usage. It could make farming more intelligent using technology, ensuring the efficient use of resources, balancing the input/output scale, protecting it from the increasing risk of drought.

Re-inventing the way we use software will help improve yield and enable micro-management of farming, with the emergence of ‘enterprise software’ for agriculture. Other technological applications range from soil sensors and software to optimize fertilizer performance, to localized, micro weather forecasting, water use detectors and monitoring, to insect alerts, crop health systems and livestock management.

Challenges ahead

However, the real challenge will be improving water use. The annual rate of efficiency improvement in agricultural water use between 1990 and 2004 was just one percent across both rain-fed and irrigated areas and there is a long way to go. Were agriculture and industry to sustain this modest rate to 2030, improvements in water efficiency would address only 20 percent of the supply-demand gap, leaving a large deficit to be filled.

As recently as 2010, it was estimated that only US$10 billion was invested around the world in irrigation systems, ‘a surprisingly low figure given the importance of water for the agricultural sector (in comparison, the global market volume for bottled water in the same year was US$59 billion)’. We need more investment in integrated water and agriculture management solutions.

Clearly, ‘water’ and ‘agriculture’ cannot operate in separate, specialist domains as they have for many years. They must be seen in a new context – where water and agriculture, together with energy, integrate and intersect, and only ground-up systemic innovation will help us achieve this.

Djibouti recycles treated urban wastewater for irrigated agriculture

Horn of Africa is a region which is confronting the harsh effects of climate change. Deteriorating coastal and marine ecosystems, more frequent and intense flooding and drought, and mounting food insecurity are some of the challenges that have become an everyday reality. A Global Climate Change Alliance programme has been implemented in Djibouti which aims to simultaneously combat these issues. By recycling treated urban wastewater for irrigated agriculture, the project team has found a cost-effective way to generate substantial economic benefits for local communities.