ADB IHE Delft Knowledge Partnership
Asian Development Bank - IHE Delft

Eye on Asia Stockholm International Water Week

Eye on Asia, Food and Water Security The Eye on Asia event from 26 to 31 August 2012 brought together a range of thoughtful and cutting edge presentations and discussions focusing on how to meet the challenges of food and water security facing Asia.

Issue description

World population, which now exceeds 7 billion, is expected to rise to around 10 billion by 2050; and 1.5 billion of the increase will be in Asia. The challenges are immense, but the debate on food production needs to reflect the complex arguments related to disparities of distribution, economics and interventions, and environment and society. The figures for food security are all the more poignant considering that about 50% of global food production never reaches a hungry mouth. Impacts of shifting climate patterns are predicted to be more severe in Asia than in many the parts of the globe. The global response to the life-threatening effects of greenhouse gas driven temperature increases are failing. The upper “safe” limit of an average 2oC increase from a 1990 base year is likely unattainable, and a new threshold limit of 4oC now seems a plausible, but highly risky, option. Dealing with impacts of extreme-events, and their unpredictability, is of major concern.

The realities of food security require incorporating level-headed and courageous discussions on energy, environment, economics, governance, technology and emerging local-scale information systems.

We are what we eat

There is continuing expectation across the globe for a rising standard of living, and, for many people, a need for improved and healthier diets. We are what we eat, and what we eat needs water. Rice, for example, can use up to 5000 liters of water for every kg of grain produced. As a trend, however, the diets of the wealthy include more meat that of the poor, and kilo for kilo meat needs more water and land to produce than staple grains and green vegetables. Generally, affluence leads to increasing meat-based diets. While affluence equates to income, about 60% of Asian farm holdings are less than 1 ha (FAO, 2010)and trends over the last 40 years have generally seen a decline in their average size.

If economies of scales are required this presents difficulties for small farmers in Asia to raise income levels so as to bring them out of subsistence livelihoods. At the same time, there is an increase in migration of people from rural to urban areas. It is estimated that by 2030, an estimated 50% of the Asian human population will be urban. Yet, the high number of small holdings may represent a “slumbering giant” in its potential to contribute to food security.

More than irrigation effects alone

Asia already has over 30% of its cultivated land irrigated. Maximizing food output from precision irrigation offers potential, but while more “crop per drop” of irrigation is possible for many state-built irrigation schemes, and by better water management in small land-holdings, it can only be part of the solution. A more holistic and integrated responses to water and food security is needed for long-term food security. This includes balancing the supply of water to crops without degrading the ecosystem services provided by wetlands and rivers.

Improving rural livelihoods requires new approaches to food production and water use, supported by effective, equitable and sustainable economic interventions.

Food security, water needs, environment and social integrity

Food security, water needs, environment and social integrity are interlinked. There have been improvements in food production and poverty alleviation over the last decade, but decreasing land fertility, environmental degradation and vulnerability to extreme climatic events in Asia is of increasing concern.

Solutions require accepting the five transitional challenges identified by Peter Rogers relating to:

  • urban population
  • nutrition
  • climate
  • agriculture
  • energy

This also requires incorporating landscape and ecological integrity to mitigate impact on people, not only as a means of climate adaptation, but in response to ongoing degradation of buffering systems such as hillside forests and lowland wetlands.

It is not only about working within the environmentally safe limits related to agriculture and climate change identified by the Beddington commission (2012), but within inherent limits applicable to ecological and human communities. Climatic changes accentuate existing problems as well as presenting new ones.

In conclusion

More sustainable use of land within a programme of food and water security that supports environmental and social capital requires long-term planning and investment at national and regional scales. It needs sustainable mechanisms for river basin management, knowledge generation and appropriate economic interventions. The need to link households and government for agreed approaches to wise use of natural resources that enhance food and water security are not only immediate challenges, but ones that requires a vision way beyond timescales of 30-40 years.

Anticipating the socio- and geo-politics of Asia over decades is unrealistic, but putting in place basic principles for sustainable management of food and water are feasible. Avoiding a “Looming Food and water Crisis in Asia” need continuing innovations and integrated approaches way beyond “business as usual”.


Beddington and others (2012). Achieving food security in the face of climate change. Final report from the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change. CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). Cophenhagen, Denmark. Available:

FAO (2010). Asia and Pacific Commission on Agricultural Statistics. Twenty Third Session. Siem Reap, Cambodia, 26-30 April 2010. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, Rome, APCAS/10/28.

Thapa, G. and Gaiha R. (2011). Smallholder Farming in Asia and the Pacific: Challenges and Opportunities. Paper presented at the IFAD Conference on New Directions for Smallholder Agriculture 24-25 January, 2001.

Link to presentations

Part 1, am 28th August 2012 (Rogers, Beernaerts, Reddy, Akhtar Ali, Lifeng li, Yuan, Whiting)

Part 2, pm 28th August 2012 (Brown, McCauley, Bharati, Meaney, Noble, Kamaladasa)