Editorial – Agroecology: living wisely with water

Editorial – Agroecology: living wisely with water

22 September 2015

Water is vital for the survival of every living being. Agro-industrial farming, nonfarm industries, urbanisation and mining continue to pollute water. Droughts and floods are more frequent due to climate change. And, the competition for water between different sectors is intensifying. This issue of Farming Matters looks at efficient and resilient ways of using water for agriculture. It includes stories of farmers that have created their own solutions, by building upon traditional management, by organising themselves and by adapting and creating new techniques. And to complete the picture, these pages contain stories about innovative water governance and struggles for water justice and water rights.

Photo: Alejandro Criado Antonio
Photo: Alejandro Criado Antonio

Our relationship with water is not only positive. It can be our best friend, but also our worst enemy. Diverse, often contradicting cultural and philosophical perspectives on water reflect these ‘mixed feelings’. While oriental philosophy and religion (Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism) and the beliefs of most indigenous peoples emphasise respect for water and consider that water teaches us modesty, occidental thinking focuses on the need to control water. Technology has been developed to increase our control over water and has resulted in impressive infrastructure, such as hydropower dams, large scale irrigation schemes, water defence infrastructure and canals.

However, notwithstanding its successes, criticism and evidence of failure of this ‘control thinking’ approach are growing. In the past century it has become clear that water is not a renewable resource, but rather a finite source of life that cannot be fully controlled. In fact, it can be easily destroyed by contamination, over fishing, over extraction, and by modifying water flows, to name a few. This resulted in growing awareness that water cannot and should not always be controlled. Furthermore, based on the fact that the most successful examples of equitable water management happen when water is considered as common property, economic control of water through privatisation and public-private partnerships is being more frequently challenged.

Beyond control

Because of these insights, at a local, national and global level, politics and practices related to water management are changing. The failure of water privatisation in several countries has led to the so called ‘remunicipalisation’ of water services in countries such as Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay, Tanzania, Mali, France, Indonesia, Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. At a global level, in 2010 the General Assembly of the United Nations recognised that the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation is a human right essential for the full enjoyment of life and all other human rights.

Mega hydro infrastructure and water-contaminating agriculture and industry are no longer considered the most enlightening features of modern civilisation. New trends such as resilience theory and practice are becoming mainstream. The importance of social cohesion and the approach to water as a human right are receiving more attention in academic and political arenas.

More specifically, water related development projects evolve from mere infrastructural works towards integrated projects with more attention to participatory planning, water justice and sustainability. In the Netherlands, which lies for a large part below sea level, policy changed from the construction of very expensive zero risk dykes towards the promotion of resilience to floods by recovering traditional flood plains and riparian zones. In countries such as the United States and Spain, dams and water reservoirs have been demolished in order to restore original river flows. In many places water contamination has been reduced thanks to water treatment, waste regulations for industry and integrated (transboundary) watershed management, for example in the Rhine Watershed that spans nine European countries.

In India, China and several sub-Saharan countries, such as Ethiopia, water storage landscapes have been regenerated and water resources replenished successfully. In South America, asPhoto: Maria Carolina Feito, the transformation of several conflicts around water control yielded positive results for the users and policy changes at the national level.


Photo: Maria Carolina Feito
Photo: Maria Carolina Feito

But we should not turn a blind eye to the worrying processes and actors that still aim to control water without consideration for environmental and social impacts. In general, contamination and water depletion caused by urbanisation, mining and agribusiness are still increasing. And we continue to see the construction of large scale hydropower dams in Asia, Africa and Latin America; damaging fragile areas such as the Amazon Region.

Occupation and ‘grabbing’ of agricultural lands can be seen in most parts of the world. Land is under increased pressure due to indifferent public policies that facilitate control by large farmers and other private actors. Their preference is to grow capital and water intensive crops such as sugarcane which further deplete groundwater levels and contribute to increased rural out-migration of family farmers.

Moreover, the dominant perception that water should be privatised, in line with the myth that public institutions cannot be run efficiently or sustainably, prevails. In August 2015, it emerged that the debt agreement between the European Union and Greece requires that Greece privatise two large public water companies.

Water and agroecological practice

This issue of Farming Matters offers alternatives to ‘control thinking’ on water. The articles show that water plays a key role in agroecology, often unpredictable, sometimes devastating, but always as a ‘soft power’ giving life to agriculture. The major challenge is to construct a new relationship between human beings and water, instead of trying to understand and manage all its possible behaviours.

The examples documented here show that such a new relationship takes into account diversity, complementarities and uncertainty, and starts from the grassroots level with tailor made approaches; avoiding the disastrous impacts of many top-down large scale projects that were implemented in the past.

Examples from Africa and Asia show that communities are not passive and their culture, experience and environment shapes their coping mechanisms. There is an increasing need for public policies that allow family farmers to live a dignified life in their semi-arid environment. And, when farmers are given the space to innovate and build on local wisdom, effective negotiation and collaboration between farming communities, civil society, academics, and state institutions may occur. Likewise, over the past decades considerable experience has been gained in integrated and participatory watershed management in semi-arid regions.

In regions with water ‘abundance’ or where ‘water is born’, greed and competition make water more scarce for some than for others. Exploitation of water as a mere economic resource creates artificial scarcity. Therefore, in such landscapes the struggles for so called ‘water justice’ are a challenge too. Both Latin American stories in this issue provide a perspective on this. Water need not to be scarce if managed fairly and wisely.

The wisdom of water

There is great danger in considering water as only an economic resource. Instead, the articles presented here embrace the complexity of water, its multi-functionality, and its behaviour. In this way, we can learn a lot from ‘the wisdom of water’.

In 2014, the International Year of Family Farming emphasised and demonstrated how family farming and agroecology can improve agrarian policy and practice. The articles in this magazine reveal that family farming is one of the keys to better water management, and that there is a two-way relationship between farmers and water: water influences farmers’ decisions and farmers’ decisions impact water quality and quantity.

2015 Is the Year of Soils. Water and soil cannot be separated. Current thinking is re-evaluating the origin of both occidental and oriental philosophy that considered the four elements, soil, water, air and fire, as the basis of everything. Worldwide, traditional knowledge and spiritual practices do not hamper but rather give additional value to current water management and agroecology. Today’s challenges of climate change, food production and increasing urban demand for water need to be addressed through this sense of complexity, interrelationship, and respect for water, which require that current power imbalances in water management and use are turned around.

ILEIA team