A Grand Challenge Approach to Securing Water for Food

By Ku Mcmahan, PhD, AAAS Fellow, U.S. Agency for International Development    

In a new approach to promoting innovation,  the USAID’s Office of Science and Technology has partnered with the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida) to launch Securing Water for Food:  A Grand Challenge for Development. The first call for proposals, which is open to applicants through January 31, 2014, seeks out innovations in the early stages of the innovation lifecycle:  the product and business development phase and at the scaling and commercial growth stages.

          

Photo Credit - Neil Palmer. CIAT
Photo Credit – Neil Palmer. CIAT

 From the moment we are born, our two most basic needs are food and water. And nothing is more critical than ensuring that we have sustainable access to these building blocks of life. But for millions of people around the world, getting enough to eat and drink is increasingly difficult.

Growing populations, expanding economies, and climate change are putting tremendous pressure on the water resources that sustain agriculture. Water shortages are increasing rapidly while agricultural production is on the decline.

If current trends in population and economic growth persist, within 15 years we can expect to see nearly two-thirds of the world’s population living under water-stressed conditions. In 20 years, we can expect to see the world’s demand for freshwater – the main source of water for agriculture – outstrip global supply by 40 percent.

These shortfalls will impact each and every one of us but none more than those in lower-resource communities in high-risk, water-stressed areas. It’s a dilemma that cannot be solved with the tools and approaches of the traditional international donor community. Instead, it requires the attention and participation of private, civil society, and public actors at the local, national, and regional levels. It requires scientific and technological innovation and ingenuity. And it requires significant investment.

Uncovering Innovation

Photo Credit: Neil Palmer CIAT
Photo Credit: Neil Palmer CIAT

Finding a solution to global water crisis is not going to be found in one place or with one organization. This is a huge challenge that requires the investment and attention of the global community.

We need governments to put in place the right policies and civil society to help sway opinions and change behaviors. But most of all, we need private sector investment to stimulate technological breakthroughs and market-driven innovation. Many of these innovations already exist, but are not reaching developing and emerging countries due, in part, to:

• The high cost and/or inappropriate design of technologies for use in low-resource settings;

• Poorly developed supply chains and lack of distribution networks; • High upfront investment costs and the absence of proper financing tools;

• The belief that developing countries do not have the market mechanisms necessary for growth;

• Limited access to information that would enable entrepreneurs to make informed investment, management, and marketing decisions; and

• Lack of information about and training on how to use the technologies.

Helping the private sector overcome these barriers to reaching low-income markets is a critical for creating sustainable solutions to the global water challenge.

How can the international donor community play a role?

imagesAt the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), we are working to redefine what it means to deliver international aid and development assistance. Taking a new approach to meet this pressing need, we aim to identify and support innovators that can move quickly and provide sustainable solutions to the water crisis.

USAID Administrator, Dr. Rajiv Shah and USAID Water Coordinator, Christian Holmes are seeking to reinvent the way we do business through a ground-breaking, new five-year Global Water Strategy. This strategy focuses on leveraging game-changing innovations, creating partnerships and finding innovative capital sources rather than investing in programs that do not demonstrate development impact.

As part of this new approach, the Agency’s Office of Science and Technology has partnered with the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida) to launch Securing Water for Food: A Grand Challenge for Development. Announced during World Water Week in Stockholm, the $25 million challenge aims to identify, source, and bring to scale promising new, low-cost innovations that use existing water resources more efficiently, improve water capture and storage technology, and reduce salinity of existing resources to ensure new sources of water for agricultural production in the communities USAID and Sida serve.

The first call for proposals, which is open to applicants through January 31, 2014, seeks out innovations in the early stages of the innovation lifecycle: the product and business development phase and at the scaling and commercial growth stages. The emphasis of the first call is on identifying market-driven, low-cost, and scalable solutions that will enable us to secure water for food in developing or emerging countries.

Through the challenge, we plan to identify and support 30-40 winning innovators with $100,000 to $3 million in funding and acceleration support. It’s through efforts like this that we believe we just might discover one or more solutions to the water for food challenge.

It’s an approach that’s been proven. USAID has conducted four similar challenges and has funded a total of 113 innovators to date. The challenges have spanned a variety of sectors including clean energy technology, child literacy, and maternal and child health.

Conclusion

Business as usual among the international donor community is not going to solve the global water challenge or help ensure that more people have access to food and water in the developing world. We need a new way of doing business that welcomes innovation. We need to invest in new approaches that challenge the status quo and seek out opportunities to leapfrog traditional water management solutions. Securing Water for Food is one bold step in this new direction.

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