Healthy ecosystems can support development.

Woman harvesting water from the Tonle Sap lake for drinking, bathing and cooking.

First published on the CGIAR website

                     Balancing human needs and the environment is a messy and complicated business. We have seen that humanity is pushing beyond planetary boundaries, driving tremendous biodiversity loss, altering global climate and nutrient cycles and placing an unprecedented demand on ecosystems to meet the production needs of a growing global population.

Understanding how agriculture interacts with other ecosystem services is essential for us to start solving problems and assessing the trade-offs and opportunities of different interventions. This unpredictability and the need for a tailored approach to local contexts is driving the need for more evidence based research on natural resource management for agricultural development.

The new set of conditions calls for innovative approaches that build the resilience of communities against unpredictable change and where possible turning the situation to farmers’ advantage.  They also need to assess the trade-offs between different types of land uses. Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE), one the CGIAR’s three CGIAR Research Programs (CRPs) engaged in natural resource management, is in the forefront of efforts to harness ecosystems and the benefits they provide society, including greater resilience to natural disasters such as floods and droughts.

Farmers are important partners in the process, which is based on an understanding that landscapes are not just sources of agricultural production, but are also dependent on, and providers of other ecosystem services, such as healthy and productive soils; crop pollination or regulating pests and disease outbreaks; safe water for drinking or irrigation; and buffering communities from floods, droughts, or landslides; and mitigating the impacts of climate change. Fabrice DeClerck, program leader for Bioversity International on agrobiodiversity and ecosystem services and leader of the Ecosystem Services and Resilience (ESS&R) working group at WLE, says evidence points to global change, including climate change being even more unpredictable than was previously thought.

“Climate change is relatively predictable in a global sense. But its local impacts are quite unpredictable, and I think we are beginning to see quite a bit of that, in terms of the impact of storms and the frequency of storms and their duration, whether in Central America or in the mid-west of America or this week in India,” he said.

“The way that we look at these challenges from an ecosystems service perspective is about ensuring the resilience of systems – so to what degree can a system absorb shocks, especially climate change-related shocks – without negatively impacting the communities that depend on those ecosystems? The fundamental difference in the way that we are trying to approach this contrasts with the traditional approaches, which try to reduce the variation. We are trying to build systems that can either make use of, or absorb that variation.”

Harnessing floodwater

An example of the ecosystem services and resilience approach is at Tonle Sap Lake in central Cambodia. During the dry season, the lake measures 900 km2, but during the rainy season it swells to 9,000 km2. When the monsoon comes, much the flood waters from the Mekong, as well as the Tonle Sap basin, flow into the lake. This shallow lake ecosystem and biosphere reserve, provides a buffer to the entire delta region.

“The challenge is not just how to protect the ecosystem, but how to protect the ecological processes that underpin the system. The tremendous annual flood pulse of the system provides a significant management challenge, but is also what makes the lake such a unique ecosystem. This pulse is both the source of water for irrigated rice, the base of the lake’s fisheries, the means by which it mitigates the impact of flooding on Phnom Penh and downstream communities,. It is also the reason that the lake is so valuable for wildlife conservation” said DeClerck.

Rather than trying to build a system that would regulate the flow, a partnership made up of WLE, the CRP Aquatic Agricultural System (AAS) and other research programs is exploring systems to  harness these processes.

“One option that has emerged in initial discussions considers whether a dense network of ponds would permit capturing this water both for dry season rice irrigation and fisheries production rather than a centralized irrigation system dependent on upstream dams.  Such a system would capture water as the lake recedes, storing that water for irrigation. That’s also instead of building large dams upstream that reduce the flood flow,” explained DeClerck. “So it’s about building systems around the lake that are maybe more small-scale, decentralized and dense to capture that floodwater for irrigation and aquaculture.” Both the key and the challenge are to understand the multiple functions that these systems play, evaluating the trade-offs between different options and developing new technologies and management practices that build up, rather than degrade the natural resource base while boosting productivity.

In Thailand, a similar approach is seeking to boost agricultural production, while contributing to flood control on the Chao Phraya River. In January 2012, serious flooding submerged 20,000 square km of farmland and claimed the lives of more than 800 people, as well as destroying homes and causing devastating economic damage. The World Bank described it as the fourth costliest flood in history.

Incentives for farmers

Now, a group of international scientists, including researchers from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), is exploring the feasibility of turning the menace of floodwater into an opportunity. Less expensive than some grand schemes drawn up to tackle flooding, it involves providing incentives to farmers to allow parts of their land to percolate floodwaters and store that water below ground for times of drought. A study suggests that integrating how water excesses and shortages are managed at a river-basin scale could better balance water supplies for upstream and downstream users across monsoon and dry seasons.

Cooperation between CRPs, as well as between other partners, is essential to tackle this kind of issues.

“Already in terms of the CGIAR reform process, we have taken tremendous strides,” said DeClerck. “The WLE program, for example, has the water experts from IWMI, the biodiversity experts from Bioversity, the soils experts from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), agroforestry experts from the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and policy experts from IFPRI to name just a few. So we have taken a huge step in integrating knowledge from these Centers within these CRPs. The significant emphasis we have placed on non-CGIAR partnership, both local and global, is also increasing our capacity to be both cutting edge, and relevant. And I think that is already beginning to show potential for how we work with partners on the ground.”

WLE is currently working on a nine-year program with partners in the Volta region (Burkina Faso and Ghana) in an initiative that embodies the new cross-cutting research approach being adopted by CGIAR.

“Rather than just having the irrigation experts set up irrigation systems, you now have soils and biodiversity experts talking to one another, trying to understand what the impact of irrigation systems is on the availability of water to downstream users, how it affects water quality, vector borne diseases, and specifically taking the time to understand the interactions between interventions,” said DeClerck.

The three natural resource management CRPs – CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS)Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA) and WLE – are already working together in Central America, East and West Africa and the Mekong delta. And while integration is important, there is also a need for each CRP to pursue its focus area in depth.

“FTA is very clearly working on the forest and agroforestry issues, CCAFS is working on the shocks that these landscapes are facing and how to develop resilience to those shocks and WLE is working to see how we can work with communities to ensure that the natural resource base that is the foundation for agricultural productivity is preserved or restored,” said DeClerck. “There is important overlap between them where synergies will be important, but we should not underestimate the enormity of these global natural resource based challenges and create opportunities for the CRPs to drill down into their focus areas.”

More information:
See CGIAR Research Program Engagement with Donors and External Stakeholders for more resources relating to the setting of targets and gauging impacts across the CGIAR Research Program portfolio. #LELP2013 #Ag4Dev (Listening Engaging Learning Progressing – LELP2013)

See also:
Preventing Cardiac Arrest for Cambodia’s Heart (WLE)

Photo credit: Fabrice DeClerck/Bioversity International