Science in Society Archive

Securing Water for Food

Many winners from an initiative promoting innovations for growing food in times of water shortage Prof Peter Saunders

Initiative launched 2013

One of the most serious problems facing the world today is a shortage of water: clean water for drinking and fresh water for growing crops. According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), about 1.2 billion people live in areas where there is not enough water, and another 1.6 billion faced economic water shortage, i.e. their countries lack the infrastructure to make use of the water that is available [1].

The situation will deteriorate further as the climate changes. Both floods and droughts are becoming more common. The ice caps on mountains are disappearing, which threatens the flow of water down some of the major rivers of the world, such as the Ganges, and rising sea levels will mean that more coastal regions will be affected by salt. Salinity is already a serious problem -- only 2.5 % of the world’s water is fresh -- and it is going to get worse.

The programme “Securing Water for Food” (SWFF),  launched at the 2013 Water Week in Stockholm,  is a joint initiative of three organisations, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands (MFA-NL). The aim is to encourage innovations that will enable the production of more food with less water and/or make more water available for food production, processing and distribution [2].

The first winners

In its first year, SWFF received 520 applications from over 90 countries. In the end, 17 were nominated to receive funding in amounts varying from $100 000 to $3 000 000 [3]. This list includes an impressive array of innovations from all over the world (see Figure 1).

· Water-powered pumps for irrigation on small farms in Nepal. These are essentially water wheels mounted on small rafts. They are cheap to build, easy to repair, and use no diesel or other fuel.

· A technology for increasing the natural storage capacity for fresh water in the subsoil to increase the amount available and to prevent the intrusion of salt water. This is being developed in coastal areas of Mexico.

· A cheap and lightweight device that farmers in Ethiopia, Kenya and South Sudan can use to construct Broad Bed and Furrows when they plant their crops. These help farmers increase yields, plant earlier and more often, conserve soil, store excess water instead of allowing the soil to become waterlogged, and make more land suitable for cultivation.

· A system of subsurface rainwater harvesting tanks and insulated greenhouses that allows smallholder farmers in Tajikistan to reduce the amount of water and energy they require and to continue to grow crops outside the traditional growing season.

· Drip irrigation that helps farmers in India increase yields by 20-90% and decrease water use by 30-70 % compared with the traditional flood irrigation. The new system is priced at 70 % lower than existing ones and the aim is to make it available through microfinancing.

· A second project that will provide micro-irrigation distributors in India with the knowledge and expertise they need to efficiently and effectively sell, distribute, and install new systems.

· Drones to allow farmers in Mozambique to detect crop stress up to two weeks before it can be seen with the naked eye and hence to optimise the application of water and other resources.

· Project in saline agriculture in Egypt and Yemen, where much land is seriously affected by salinity and water-logging, to identify and scale existing non-GM seeds for key crops such as barley, triticale, fodder beet, pearl millet, sorghum, safflower and quinoa, and to develop distribution networks to smallholders. It is estimated to enhance land and livestock productivity by at least 30 %.

· Introduction into Pakistan of a (non-GM) potato variety that is four times more salt tolerant than regular varieties. This variety does not require freshwater irrigation and thrives in salt affected areas.

· Teaching farmers in Bangladesh how to grow crops (chiefly pumpkins) on sandbars, large, barren sandy islands that appear in the main rivers after the rainy season and disappear after only five months.

· Many farms in Mexico rely on surface water sources which can be contaminated with harmful microbes such as E. coli and also chemicals including herbicides and pesticides. A technique for increasing the natural storage capacity for fresh water in the subsoil in the coastal areas of Mexico.

· Lilypad is a solar activated photochemical water treatment that addresses all potential contaminants and improves prospects for organic farming, also in Mexico.

· A pre-fertilised, biodegradable, organic paper seed tape that anchors seeds at the correct depth and distance apart. It uses up to 80% less water in the germination phase and eliminates seed and fertiliser waste, making it especially useful for household gardens.

· A solar-powered sensor system that delivers accurate, localised and up to date meteorological information to African farmers, helping to reduce the risk to farmers that rely on rain fed agriculture.

· A non-GM salt tolerant quinoa for Chile, China and Vietnam. The project includes providing training and information to smallholder farmers and also ensuring a stable source to the seeds.

· Waterpads that serve as water buffers at plant roots. They can repeatedly absorb, store and release water directly to the roots, thus reducing evaporation, run-off and percolation. They can reduce water use by up to 30%. These are being developed in Turkey.

· Inexpensive greenhouses for Sierra Leone and Mozambique that allow smallholders to grow crops on a year-round basis while conserving water. They can be constructed in two days by two experienced but otherwise untrained people and last over five years.

· A natural microbial inoculate to manipulate endophytes (symbiotic microorganisms) to help plants adapt to water related stress. The mixture reduces the water consumption of rice and maize crops by up to 50%, raises crop tolerance to drought, salinity and temperature stresses, and enhances yields. Inoculates for soy and wheat are already available and those for other crops such as cotton, sorghum and barley are at various stages of development.

Figure 1   Some of the winners in securing water for food from around the world

Innovations exportable to other countries

The innovations originate in different countries where they are developed and first implemented. Clearly most if not all may be transferable to other locations, including many that are succeeding, but didn’t make the final cut.

It is especially encouraging that while these all address the same basic problem, they do it in many different ways. That is surely the key to solving the problem of water for agriculture just as it is for solving almost any big problem. No magic bullet, but a variety of measures, some with large effects, some with small ones, all adapted where necessary to suit local conditions and needs.

And where the solution, or part of the solution, is crops that are tolerant to drought and salinity, conventional breeding is already providing them, and much faster and safer than GM can [4] (Genetic Modification Trails Conventional Breeding By Far, SiS 64).

Article first published 17/11/14


  1. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA). Water Scarcity. Press release, updated 20 August 2014.  21/10/14.
  2. Securing Water for Food. 21/10/14.
  3. Round 1 Award Nominees. Securing Water for Food press release, 1 September 2014. 21/10/14.
  4. Saunders PT. Genetic modification trails conventional breeding by far. Science in Society 64, 2-4, 2014. 

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Todd Millions Comment left 19th November 2014 16:04:33
For starting shrubs and trees where the shade will reduce water needs for smaller crops-3 liter bottles,dark material(clear can lens sunlight and start fires)-Glass ones tend not too blow away. A plastic pipe scrap 10-20 cm long is set in the ground beside the shrub.The bottle filled and set neck down in the pipe.Magnum sized bottles will provide a wet spot on target for a week at a time.This also works well for clump crops like rubarb. Pumps-recycled plastics should be remoldable in small shops to make spiral fluting for Acrhimeatean pumps of stock platic pipe diameters.Last I checked they were still the most efficent pumps we have,low speed and maintainable too boot.With some work on stream flow powering-no iphone app would be needed.Though small wind and solar power tends too be easy and portable with such equipment.