Volume 26, Issue 4

December 2010
Thematic Issue on Rainfall Variability


New Challenges and Old Opportunities of Water-related Food Security

Jan Lundqvist, Malin Falkenmark and Jeremy Bird

Original Articles

There is no such thing as an average: How farmers manage uncertainty related to climate and other factors

J.-M. Faurèsa, M. Bernardia, and R. Gommesb

aFood and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Rome, Italy; bEuropean Commission Joint Research Centre,Ispra, Italy

Contact: Jean-Marc Faures | Email: JeanMarc.Faures@fao.org


Managing uncertainty related to climate variability has always been at the core of all agricultural activities. For farmers across the world, the concept of average rainfall is often less important than its dispersion and distribution during the cropping season. In most developing countries, farming practices are based on risk-mitigation strategies that do not allow for the development of highly productive agriculture, but mitigate the risks associated with the variability of climate and of other factors like markets or freshwater availability. The paper reviews the concept of average precipitation and discusses the stochastic nature of climate variables. It addresses the relationship between climate and crop production and related farmers’ behaviour, and discusses the different tools and approaches that are available to anticipate, mitigate or compensate for the negative effects of climate variability in agricultural production.

Pages: 523-542


Coping with rainfall variability: Dry spell mitigation and implication on landscape water balances in small-scale farming systems in semi-arid niger

Jennie Barrona,b, Elin Enforsb, Howard Cambridgea and Adamou M. Moustaphac

aStockholm Environment Institute, University of York, York, UK; bStockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden; cCRESA, Abdou Moumouni University, Niamey, Niger

Contact: Jennie Barron | Email: jennie.barron@sei.se


Rainfall variability and inherent dry spells are a reality with severe implications for smallholder agro-ecosystems in semi-arid Sahel. To increase both on- and off-farm biomass production and productivity is challenging with these climate-induced temporal and spatial variations of water. This paper tests the idea that increased vegetation through tree cover may impact water balance in a water-stressed landscape: South-east Niger. Local rainfall data, farming systems data and a landscape water-modelling tool (ArcSWAT) are used. Four production domains (conventional or fertilized combined with millet crop or millet crop plus trees) were assessed for long-term yield and landscape water balance impacts. The dry-spell analysis shows a frequency of dry spells less than 14 days is in the order of one to two dry-spell events per season in 7 years out of 10 years. The occurrence has increased between 1960 and 2004, despite a slight recovery of total annual rainfall amounts since the severe droughts of the 1980s. Results of modelled millet yields and landscape water balances suggest that options exist to enhance landscape productivity. With marginal inputs of fertilizer, millet yields increased fivefold to 2.0-2.4 t ha-1, and water productivity improved from 6,000 to 12,000 m3 actual evapotranspiration (ETa) t-1 grain, to an improved 1,700-3,000 m3 ETa t-1 grain. In addition, 10% tree cover in combination with fertilized millet increased yield with marginal or no impact on water partitioning and flows in the landscape. The policy opportunities are complex and urgently needed in view of increased rainfall variability due to expected climate change. To develop sustainable pathways in these landscapes dominated by poor smallholder framers requires water managers to be more innovative and go beyond water resources alone.

Pages: 543-559


Australia demonstrates the planet’s future: Water and climate in the Murray-Darling Basin

Jamie Pittocka and Daniel Connellb

aFenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University, Canberra, ACT, Australia; bCrawford School of Economics and Government, Australian National University, Canberra, ACT, Australia

Contact: Jamie Pittock | Email: Jamie.pittock@anu.edu.au


Australia’s rivers are among the most variable in the world and this has been a major challenge in catchments such as the Murray-Darling Basin where management has focused on increasing agricultural production while reducing risks from fluctuating water availability. Pressure for development and over-optimistic assessments of available water have resulted in over-allocation and increasing ecological decline, which has been severely exacerbated by record-breaking drought. In recent years, governments have agreed to radical policies such as the National Water Initiative 2004 and allocated substantial funds in response. Implementation is in gridlock, however, as the socio-economic implications have become clearer. Most debate is focused on the draft Murray-Darling Basin Plan due for release in mid-2010 before finalization in 2011. It will be the first Basin-wide plan and is intended to deal with inequities across borders and risks such as climate change and drought. Climate change scenarios for 2030 foresee a range of potential surface water availability outcomes, ranging from a 7% increase to a 37% decrease, yet greater water scarcity is being experienced in the current (2002+) drought with inflows reduced by 70% or more in extreme years. Contradictory policies are hindering the more open adaptation required to manage a drier future.

Pages: 561-578


The Mekong: A drought-prone tropical environment?

Peter Adamson and Jeremy Bird

Mekong River Commission Secretariat, Vientiane, Lao PDR

Contact: Peter Adamson | Email: peter@mrcmekong.org


The notion of drought as a hydro-meteorological hazard in tropical monsoon regions is not perhaps one that fits naturally with conventional perceptions. The term ‘monsoon’ is commonly regarded as synonymous with torrential rainfall, moisture surplus, floods and climatic predictability. The paper seeks to dispel such perceptions in a review of recent historical events within the Lower Mekong Basin. A weak monsoon results in deficient flows and water levels that can have severe impacts upon agricultural production across the Cambodian flood plain and the delta in Viet Nam, where natural and controlled inundation is the basis of padi rice production. Lower flows also cause an increase in saline intrusion in the delta, which further reduces agricultural output. The impacts of an early end to monsoon conditions on agriculture in Thailand and Lao PDR are also revealed, which serves to emphasize the potential negative consequences of climate change which not only is expected to result in the increased inter-annual variability of regional rainfall, but also there could be impacts upon its seasonal pattern and timing. In concluding, the paper refers to building drought management capacity in the region through a climate change and adaptation initiative, including forecasting, impact assessment, and the development of management, preparedness and mitigation policies.

Pages: 579-594


Adaptation to rainfall variability and unpredictability: New dimensions of old challenges and opportunities

Jan Lundqvist and M. Falkenmark

Stockholm International Water Institute, Stockholm, Sweden

Contact: Jan Lundqvist | Email: jan.lundqvist@siwi.org


The variability and unpredictability of rainfall is a neglected but most hazardous dimension of climate and water resources and a tangible development predicament. Describing and analysing the world and its water resources in terms of statistical averages and trends is natural and necessary, for example, as an input in planning and policy. But the very complex and dynamic reality must be duly recognized. Policies must include a range of approaches and the political will and skill needed to balance attention to ‘privileged problems’ and to problems that have been ‘neglected’. This entails a widening of the water resource perception to include the various fractions of rainfall. An improved efficiency of the rains would translate into the notion of ‘more crop per rain drop’. A coordinated and flexible management of the physical and biological resources of a landscape and a capitalizing on the abilities of people, communities and governing bodies and agencies is required to deal with the complexity.

Pages: 595-612


General Papers

Improved water institutions for food security and rural livelihoods in Afghanistan’s Balkh River Basin

Gregory L. Torell and Frank A. Ward

Department of Agricultural Economics and Agricultural Business, New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, NM, USA

Contact: Frank A. Ward | Email: fward@nmsu.edu


Crop and livestock production in Afghanistan is constrained by weak infrastructure, poor information, and inadequate institutional capacity to manage water to sustain food security and support farm income. Afghan decision-makers currently lack the information and its application to evaluate the economic performance of alternative irrigation institutions. This analysis develops and applies a framework that informs water decision-makers on profitable and food-secure uses of land and water resources in the Balkh River Basin of Afghanistan. Several arrangements for allocating water among a system of irrigation canals are analysed for their impacts on land and water use, farm profitability, and food security at both the canal and basin levels. Findings show that total water supply and institutional arrangements for allocating water shortages have important influences on farm income and food security. The methods used and results found provide a framework for informing decisions on the sustainable use of land and water for improved food security and rural livelihoods in the developing world’s irrigated areas.

Pages: 613-637


Virtual water and water footprints offer limited insight regarding important policy questions

Dennis Wichelns

International Water Management Institute, Colombo, Sri Lanka

Email: dwichelns@csufresno.edu


Much of the literature regarding virtual water and water footprints focuses on the potential water savings that might be realized when water-short countries import water-intensive agricultural goods from countries with larger water endowments. Some of the published estimates of potential national and global water savings made possible through international trade are quite large and they do not reflect actual or potential opportunities to save water. Recent additions to the virtual water literature describe the pressure placed on water resources in one country by consumers of imported products in another. Some authors suggest that, through international trade, consumers are partly responsible for water resource problems in distant regions. Although one goal of virtual water analysis is to describe opportunities for improving water security, there is almost no mention of the potential impacts of the prescriptions arising from that analysis on farm households in industrialized or developing countries. It is essential to consider more carefully the inherent flaws in the virtual water and water footprint perspectives, particularly when seeking guidance regarding policy decisions.

Pages: 639-651


Analysis of urban water management in historical perspective: Evidence for the Spanish case

A. Ruiz-Villaverde, M.A. García-Rubio and F. González-Gómez

Department of Applied Economics, University of Granada, Granada, Spain

Contact: F. González-Gómez | Email: fcojose@ugr.es


The level of public and private involvement in economic activity in societies has changed over time. One may talk about the existence of a cyclical trend in which the most important periods of public management are replaced by periods in which private management dominates the situation. This phenomenon may also be observed in local areas. Some authors have pointed out the existence of an alternation in the provision of municipal services, resulting in periods dominated by public management compared with other stages dominated by private management. In order to illustrate this cyclical trend at the local level, this paper intends to analyse the evolution of the governance of the Spanish water supply since the mid-19th century to the present day. Recent evidence from the industry suggests the possibility that a further change in the trend may currently be being witnessed.

Pages: 653-674


Impacts of water-management decisions on the survival of a city: From ancient Tenochtitlan to modern Mexico City

Fabiola S. Sosa-Rodriguez

Department of Environment and Resource Studies, Faculty of Environmental Studies, Water Policy and Governance Group (WPGG), University of Waterloo, Waterloo, ON, Canada

Emails: fsosarod@uwaterloo.ca, fsosa@colmex.mx


Water-management decisions can influence city sustainability. The actions implemented based on these decisions can mitigate, and even prevent, certain water-related risks. Likewise, they can also intensify already existing dangers or generate new ones. Water-management decisions are linked to the institutions that make them, to their capacity for solving specific water-related problems, and to perceptions about which water problems should take priority. Mexico City’s inhabitants have been exposed to insufficient water supply, low water quality, a lack of sanitation services and catastrophic floods since the city was originally built. These risks have forced city authorities, at different times, to implement measures to prevent them. This article analyses how water-management policies have developed over the centuries, and how these policies have affected the city inhabitants, and the environment. The study uses as an example the history of water-management decisions and practices in Mexico City. It also points out relevant future directions for water policy.

Pages: 675-687


Virtual Water and Water Footprints: Policy Relevant or Simply Descriptive?

Transboundary Aquifers and Intenational Law: The Experence of the Guarani Aquifer System, University of Surrey, Guildford, UK, 31 August 2010