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Thinking hydrologically

About the blog

Clara Colton Symmes
Communications and Knowledge Management Fellow at International Water Management Institute (IWMI).
  • Thinking hydrologically
  • Water is running out in Central Asia. New approaches to water regulation, energy production, and agricultural education are necessary to be able to feed the region.

To ensure that the voices of his region are heard at the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit, Oyture Anarbekov, IWMI’s Country Manager for Uzbekistan, convened a regional dialogue with partners that focused on the challenges facing Central Asia and the interconnected nature of food and water systems.

UN Sustainable Development Goal 6 emphasizes the need for sustainably-managed water sources by 2030. But the current rate of progress towards that goal is only half what it needs to be and global water sources have become increasingly unreliable and polluted, posing challenges to farmers who rely on water for agriculture.

In Uzbekistan and the broader Central Asia region, around 60-70% of the population lives in rural areas and relies on agriculture as a main livelihood. But farmers are struggling with a limited water supply and local governments are finding it hard to navigate regional water regulations.

Water sources, Anarbekov highlights, do not observe national boundaries. Uzbekistan’s main water sources, the rivers Amu Darya and Syr Darya, flow through five countries in addition to Uzbekistan, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan.

Upstream and downstream countries must collaborate to manage water hydrologically, paying attention not to national boarders, but to the borders of the rivers’ watersheds he says.

Next week’s pre-summit hosted in Italy is another opportunity to bring together diverse stakeholders in food systems in the leadup to the UNFSS. On the IWMI blog, we will be exploring what country managers in Uzbekistan and Pakistan hope to achieve through the UNFSS process.

Why is it important to see water and food systems as connected?

All of the countries in Central Asia consider agriculture their main sector, as it keeps rural populations employed and is a large portion of national GDPs. Around 60-70% of the populations live in rural areas and have agriculture as their main livelihood. We live in a dryland system, so it is very important that the water is there because without water, we cannot grow anything. So there is a direct linkage between water and food, but these days also energy, climate and environment because climate change is also affecting the region.

What are some of the imminent challenges facing food and water systems in your region?

Looking at the water – energy – food (WEF) nexus, the biggest challenge is the scarcity of water resources. We are already feeling it. Due to climate change, less precipitation is falling and glaciers in the mountains are melting. We had one of the biggest disasters of the 20th century in this region: the disappearance of the Aral Sea. The population that used to fish in the sea based their home and work around it, but now there are salt deserts appearing in its place and affecting the health of those who live there. Our other challenge is a competition of the sectors. Some are interested in collecting water in order to generate electricity, so there is no water for agriculture. Our third challenge is that we still do not value water as a precious and valuable resource. Farmers do not use water rationally, so we need to work on incentives for saving water.

Farmer fixes edges of the waterway in a farm field in Central Asia. Photo: Neil Palmer / IWMI
Farmer fixes edges of the waterway in a farm field in Central Asia. Photo: Neil Palmer / IWMI

What would a water-secure world look like in Uzbekistan and the greater Central Asia region?

We need a cohesive approach. Because water does not have borders, it should be managed not in an administrative territorial way, but by hydrographic and hydrologic boundaries. Water scarcity is not only a problem for governments. We need to work at all levels, starting from kindergartens, explaining to children how treasured water is, especially for our region because we have such low precipitation. We need to educate farmers on proper irrigation and relevant water saving technologies. There shouldn’t be one wasted drop of water.

We also need to link the sectors. If we just work with the water sector, we will never achieve a water-secure world. We must think not from the economic perspective of the country, but from the water perspective.

Another aspect that we need to consider is bringing in and utilizing renewable energies. We’re still using infrastructure from the USSR. It’s outdated economically and rationally, resulting in big losses of electricity and energy. This infrastructure must be replaced with energy efficient infrastructures.

What were your goals for the regional dialogue you convened in April?

The dialogue’s objective was to bring the discussion on food and water systems in a changing climate to the global policy level and to provide tangible inputs for discussions at the UNFSS. Our aim was to embrace multi-stakeholder inclusivity. The Central Asia dialogue was open to a wide range of stakeholders from water, energy, food, environment and other related sectors including intergovernmental organizations, regional, national, local government departments, businesses, academia and other networks and NGOs.

One of our main questions was “How can food systems be localized and transformed in a water-constrained region such as Central Asia, in a manner that acknowledges WEF nexus linkages under climate uncertainties?” We explored this through seven breakout groups focusing on different aspects of the WEF nexus.

How did you make sure that the dialogue included historically underrepresented groups like smallholder farmers and women?

IWMI has the advantage of being physically based in the region and we, in comparison to most international organizations or intergovernmental organizations, work from the bottom up. Most of what we do, we do in the field.  So we’ve had well-established connections and partnerships since establishing the office in the region in 2001.

We have a database of the people with whom we work. So, we sent invitations to our stakeholders including water users and consumer associations, the association of farmers of the region, academic institutions, and lyceums with which we work. There are women’s farming associations in the region that we connected with and invited. Plus, we physically visited the regions to advocate in-person for attending the meeting.

We made sure that all interested stakeholders could participate in the event and that we did not stop anyone’s participation.

Men checking up an irrigation water system. Photo: Neil Palmer / IWMI
Men checking up an irrigation water system. Photo: Neil Palmer / IWMI

What will be the impact of the regional dialogue you convened?

One of the reasons we conducted this dialogue is that none of the UNFSS’s five action tracks explicitly focuses on water resources. These dialogues provided an opportunity to collect views and opinions from stakeholders about the importance of this water in the food system transformation that will feed into the main summit.

By bringing in diverse stakeholders and having them lead in breakout groups, we were able to achieve an understanding of current challenges and local solutions. We collected this information and combined them in a report that was submitted to the UNFSS administration and UN Water. This process ensures that the voices of Central Asia will be discussed at the global UN Water panel.

We also gave a summary of the outcomes and recommendations to IWMI’s Director General, so that at the main summit, IWMI will be able to give clear recommendations about the role of water in the food system transformation. We want to make sure that water is not neglected in the in the big global discussions.

What upcoming IWMI projects do you think will affect the kind of food system transformation desired by the UNFSS?

One current project is our work with agricultural cotton producers. We’re trying to help them introduce efficient water technologies which can help rational water use, save water resources and also apply relevant what resources when needed.

We are also demonstrating small hydropower potential in Central Asia with the aim of improving access and pumping at the small tributary levels, and showing how improved irrigation can save electricity.

Another project we’re working on is implementing environmentally friendly farming practices in the Aral Sea region where we have many salt-affected areas. We’re exploring what kind of salt and drought-tolerant crops we can cultivate so that we can stop salt absorption, as well as installing energy efficient technologies like solar irrigation.

Lastly, in a project funded by the European Union and the International Science and Technology Center, we are using GIS/RS to record up-to-date, comprehensive data on water and land resources in the Amu Darya basin. This work informs management practices and supports decision making at local, regional, and national levels.

What is making you feel hope about the future of food systems?

This region could be sustainable in food systems transformation and food security. We have enough resources, we have enough land, we have enough people, we have enough manpower. We also have enough water, but we need to rationally and sustainably manage it. If we manage agriculture in a way that takes into consideration the competitiveness of the region for cultivation.

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