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Water Scarcity Threatens our Food: From Competition to Unequal Access

First published at The Jakarta Post (24/11/2022)

Water availability is essential for agricultural outputs and ensuring the safety of our food supply. Drinking and sanitation, agriculture (fishery, crops and livestock), food processing and food preparation all rely on water. Therefore, water must be of sufficient quality and quantity.

A lack of available water threatens the agricultural sector and the safety of our food supply. The agriculture sector absorbs about 70 percent of all freshwater resources, making it both a cause and victim of water scarcity. This consumption rate, unless controlled, is detrimental to the ecosystem and depletes water supplies for other uses.

The climate crisis also severely affects agriculture by raising the water demand, restricting agricultural outputs, and diminishing water availability in regions where irrigation is most necessary or advantageous.

In the next few decades, water scarcity may affect two-thirds of the world's population, worsening the world’s ecosystem. Consequently, there will be an increase in precipitation in temperate zones, in the variability of rainfall distribution, and in the frequency of extreme events, which lead to higher temperatures.

Although Indonesia has tremendous potential for renewable water resources, water supply and demand are frequently out of balance.

Freshwater is abundant in sparsely-populated Sumatra, Kalimantan and Papua, while in densely populated islands such as Java, less freshwater is accessible. Water scarcity is most acute in Java – home to more than 60 percent of Indonesia's population – with many of its cities and most of its agriculture only possessing 10 percent of the country's water resources.

In South Sumatra, Sulawesi, Bali and West Nusa Tenggara, the main surface water user is the agriculture sector, with quite a high annual irrigation needing 177,100 million cubic meters.

Existing water stress makes it hard for farmers and people to get enough water during the dry season. In 2019, crops failed on 17,000 hectares of rice fields in West Java, Central Java, and Lampung because of drought. Drought hit a total of 250,000 ha of farmland the year before.

Inequality of access to water for farmlands located upstream and downstream also poses a major problem.

Indonesia's main irrigation infrastructure is made up of government-run dams that provide irrigation, raw water for industry and homes, and electricity. The government builds and cares for waterways that are part of the primary and secondary irrigation systems.

Farm plots (of 25–150 ha) are served by a tertiary irrigation system that is run by farmers, while water for households and businesses is delivered by utility companies.

The competition for water between farmers and the industry in recent decades is likely to result in friction and conflict, facing the government with the dilemma of choosing between industrial and agricultural needs. An example is a conflict between farmers, cement factories and lime mining in the Kendeng Mountains of Central Java.

Water usage management and an innovative agricultural system are two of the most crucial ways to address water scarcity challenges.

Implementing rules and regulations that maintain and preserve water resources is one way to achieve this goal. Effective irrigation methods can also be implemented to save waste and increase agricultural yields.

Some areas in Indonesia have a traditional water management system based on customary law. For instance, the traditional rice field irrigation technique utilized in rice cultivation in Bali, subak accommodates the local community's socio-technical dynamics. This irrigation system regulates the water distribution of paddy fields on mountain terraces.

Irrigation in the subak system is both constant and cyclical. Farmers of the subak system work in groups of two or three to cultivate their rice fields. Irrigation water is divided fairly among the many clusters of rice crops.

Although Indonesia's community-based water management system already exists, an efficient and innovative agricultural system is also critical in addressing water stress. Technology and modern approaches make it feasible to boost crop output while consuming less water. Drip irrigation, for example, feeds water straight to plant roots, reducing evaporation and water waste.

Cutting-edge technology, however, would not work without enabling the environment to improve Indonesia's agriculture system through policies that address governance (e.g., enhancing the capacity of the Water Use Association (P3A)), access and societal acceptance obstacles.

A landscape approach may be useful to ensure sustainable use of water resources, especially in a complex environment like watersheds with competition in water use.

Payment for Environmental Services (PES) is a mechanism that can be used to apply a landscape approach to water management. The mechanism is perhaps best known through carbon trading schemes in forestry.

Although the concept itself is regulated under Government Regulation No. 46/2017 on Environmental Economic Instruments, PES for watershed management is relatively new and has not been widely adopted. Broadening the PES system into water management could reduce water stress and improve farmers’ access to water.

The PES mechanism connects farmers who provide environmental services, such as preventing runoff pollution from fertilizer and pesticide use from polluting rivers, with utility drinking water companies or other water-using businesses as users of environmental services who rely on farmers' cooperation.

It puts a price on environmental services and thereby incentivizes sustainable behavior. The funds would finance water quality improvement and watershed protection projects and have the potential to be an effective water resource protection strategy.

One of the success stories of PES implementation can be found in Rejoso Basin, which developed new innovations in the watershed downstream, with a focus on regenerative agriculture via climate-smart paddy agricultural practices and sustainable financing for both ecosystem services and agriculture.

Rejoso Basin successfully developed a multi-stakeholder water management system through the “Rejoso Kita” program. Rejoso Kita aims to maintain stakeholders’ collaboration for conservation and to preserve the Rejoso watershed area.

This innovative program keeps the number of 500 trees per ha, successfully increases infiltration by 0.5 to 1 percent and decreases surface runoff by 1.5 to 2 percent, as shown by the GenRiver Hydrology Model - Generic Riverflow. Not to mention, farmers were compensated for their conservation efforts with a PES between Rp 1.5 million (US$100) and Rp 3.2 million per ha annually.


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