Can societies reorient agricultural water management through strategic planning against the backdrop of sustainable development challenges? This is the main question I pursue in my academic research and teaching. We know that sustainable development challenges are massive, with agricultural water being a major factor (food production, sufficient water quantity and quality for all, urban encroachment, agriculture-forest frontiers). Strategic decisions for agriculture and water have accelerated agricultural production in the past, often at the cost of increased pollution and environmental degradation.
Yet, to simultaneously feed a growing global population, and repair at least some of the environmental damage, alternative water management strategies are needed as business as usual ones are approaching limits in terms of reduced livelihood stability, economic profitability, and environmental impacts.
These concerns call for Reorientations in strategic plans. What is a Reorientation? It entails a clear shift from one strategy to another, for instance in the Ganges river from polluted-sluggish flow to clean-continuous flow. It is fairly explicit about what should happen strategy-wise, and how that translates to agricultural water management (crops, main flow regime, water resources). Multiple levels are covered, from field level (crops, water delivery, drainage) to the water system (rivers, canals, weirs, dams, dikes etc.), planning region (zoning, functions of water and agriculture), and institutional change.
Reorientations, a difficult but rewarding road to go? We know that Reorientations can be pursued and developed through strategic planning processes as they offer a systemic outlook (across sectors, beyond short-term political interests, multiple agro-eco-hydrological zones). We also know that changes in institutions and water management come at a slow pace (lock-in technology and power, short-term interests and exploitation prevail, biophysical system response time). As there is limited scientific evidence, it is very unclear if and how societies can reorient their agricultural water management.
I intend to develop a theory how agricultural water management is reoriented in river basins and deltas. This theory will be developed through an online database, action research and explanatory case study research; in interdisciplinary collaboration with fellow scientists and practitioners. It will explain how reorientations are introduced, shaped and implemented over time, and to what extent they change water resources, technology, governance arrangements, power and justice relations. This theory will eventually help us to effectively reorient agricultural water management.
IWMI Lao PDR, University of Twente, Deltares, IHE Delft, University of Freiburg
So far Bangladesh, Vietnam, Lao PDR, India, Netherlands, Germany, US, Africa continent