March 25, 2019 | By Ladd

Guest Commentary - Water Reuse in Agriculture: A Solution to Water Scarcity?

Editor's Note: As part of our new blog series, Uncharted Waters, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs is inviting a diverse group of experts to explore topics related to water, nutrition, and agriculture in celebration of the 2019 Global Food Security Symposium.  Join the discussion using #GlobalAg, and explore the report interactive now.

By Ladd, Senior Technical Director for Nutrition at ACDI/VOCA

Being a Colorado girl, I love the great outdoors and, though I often take it for granted, I love the mountains for skiing, hiking, fishing and identifying which direction is west when driving around Denver. Now that I no longer reside in my home state, it makes me appreciate my trips home even more. Two of my favorite activities to do when I am home are to climb St. Mary’s Glacier and to see the Aspen trees in their glorious golden fall state.

Recently returning from a trip to Tanzania, I heard on the news that for a few short weeks the Colorado River may once again flow all the way to the Gulf of California — not because of strides in water conservation, but due to scientists’ attempt at artificial flooding to restore the parched delta. Due to dams, irrigation, and climate change, the mighty Colorado River has been tamed, mostly to meet the growing population demands of Arizona and California. If you have never been to Colorado, you may not realize how dry it is and totally dependent on annual snowfall to fill the rivers and reservoirs. Summer brings yard watering restrictions, reminding us that the climate continues to change. These restrictions also create the need for further strategies for families to save and reuse gray water, the relatively clean waste water produced by households.

The reality is that we live in a changing world. Growing populations, internal conflicts, trade wars, and digital and environmental changes all have a lasting impact on our day-to-day lives. Water is the center of much of the change and conflict.

Whether you live in Colorado or Tanzania, water is center to life. As water continues to become more precious and valuable, we need to find ways to make the most of this limited resource. Water is crucial for both agriculture and health, intertwined in complexity and each depending on the other. While agriculture is the foundation of good nutrition and health, 70 percent of all water withdrawals are agriculture related. This is a problem given the fact that our bodies are 60 percent water, and healthy farmers need access to food and water to be productive. The challenge going forward is to wisely use water.

Finding ways to maximize water usage not only protects the environment, but also has a significant impact on nutrition. In Tanzania, the Feed the Future Cereals Market System Development Activity, known locally as NAFAKA II, shifted its focus from just staple crop production (maize and rice) to more nutrition-sensitive agriculture. Our team in Tanzania began focusing on alternate wet-dry planting. This practice takes advantage of the water left in rice paddies to grow short-duration crops that take less than 60 days to harvest.

NAFAKA II, which is funded by the United States Agency for International Development and implemented by ACDI/VOCA, works with rice farmers to plant leguminous crops, such as green gram, or nutrient-packed mung beans, chickpeas, and cowpeas, during the period immediately after harvesting the rice. Using the residual water from the paddies means the crop is not rain-dependent and is fast-growing. It also provides a quality protein source for household consumption and an additional or diversified income source.

Our NAFAKA II team provided 25 rice farmers with good agriculture practices and access to high-quality inputs. Their 2017–2018 cropping season yielded 2.5 metric tons (MT) of chickpeas, 3.1 MT of cowpeas, and 2.8 MT of mung beans for home consumption and additional sales of USD 12,000. In the 2018–2019 cropping season, these farmers are estimated to produce 3.2 MT of chickpeas, 4.5 MT of cowpeas, and 3.7 MT of mung bean for household consumption and sale of the remaining product for USD 28,000.

As we continue to strive to maximize water usage, we will need to find creative ways to grow our food. This could range from the reuse of gray water for kitchen gardens or raised beds in urban settings to multiple water uses, such as residual water in rice paddies or seasonal riverbeds for growing legumes and short-cycle vegetables. These latter methods can have a major impact on household nutrition and food security during the lean seasons, when food can be harder to acquire for rural families.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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| By Roger Thurow

Our New Gordian Knot

Fifty years ago Dr. Norman Borlaug recieved the Nobel Peace Prize for cutting the "Goridan knot" of population and food production. Now the planet faces another seemingly intractable problem: how to nourish the planet while preserving the planet.