Water anybody?

By: Editor In Chief
Wed 11 February,2015

ICBA-DG Ismahane Elouafi jjjj
Dr. Ismahane Elouafi is Director General of ICBA - Agriculture for Tomorrow

Filed Under: Business & Economy


A passionate scientists and environmentalist, Dr. Ismahane Elouafi is Director General of ICBA-Agriculture for Tomorrow, and as such is charged with helping solve one of the planet’s most pressing issues – the shortage of food and water.


Dr. Ismahane Elouafi is a woman of strong beliefs. A scientists, geneticist and environmentalist, she believes that, in order to alleviate discrimination and poverty, science has to be the basis of all development plans.


Dr. Ismahane is the Director General of the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA), a not-for-profit, international centre of excellence for research and development in marginal environments. Established in 1999, the centre originally focused on the problems of salinity and using saline water to irrigate crops.


Dr. Ismahane took the helm in 2012, and since 2013 the centre has adopted a new strategic direction, addressing the closely linked challenges of income, water, nutrition and food security.


The new strategy takes innovation as a core principle with a focus on assessment of natural resources, climate change adaptation, crop productivity and diversification, aquaculture and bioenergy, and policy analysis. ICBA is working on the use of conventional and non-conventional water (such as saline, treated wastewater, industrial water and seawater), water and land management technologies, remote sensing and modelling for climate change adaptation.


To say Dr. Ismahane›s role is life changing is not an understatement. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has forecast that food production needs to increase by 70% by 2050 to feed the projected 9.1 billion population. Yet we live on a planet where only 2.5% of the water is fresh and where only 10% of the land is considered ‘arable’. Half of the world’s land is considered marginal or arid, but if science can make this land also reap crops then starvation could be a thing of the past.


Central to her work, Dr. Ismahane and her team aim to increase the salinity tolerance of traditional crops such as date palms, sorghum and millet. Dr. Ismahane works closely with local farmers to help them cultivate their crops, but her ambitions are far-reaching. She hopes that one day the work done at the ICBA will receive international recognition, and could prove a game changer in international agricultural markets.


Dr. Ismahane holds a wealth of international experience. She obtained a PhD in Genetics from Cordoba University in Spain, has worked for CFIA and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), and international research organisations such as the International Centre for Agricultural Research and Dry Areas, Japan International Research Centre for Agricultural Sciences, and CIMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Centre).


Her energy and enthusiasm has been rewarded with international recognition, including the Excellence in Science award from the Global Thinkers Forum (2014), and the National Reward Medal by His majesty Mohamed VI, the King of Morocco (2014). In 2014, Muslim Science ranked Dr Ismahane among the 20 Most Influential Women in Science in the Islamic World, and CEO-Middle East Magazine listed her among the World’s 100 Most Powerful Arab Women.


Tell us a little bit about the history behind the setting up of ICBA?

The International Centre for Bio-saline Agriculture (ICBA), was created in 1999 by the Islamic Development Bank, in order to support Muslim countries address salinization of land and water and diminish salinity impact on food production.  UAE graciously hosted ICBA, as the center purpose was in perfect alignment with the late Shaikh Zayed vision for a green UAE and the UAE Government supports international public research.


Since then, ICBA’s research has evolved. Initially focusing on salinity, ICBA now take a broad integrated approach to improving agricultural production in marginal environments. This strategic shift came about in response to our stakeholders’ request. In order to develop ICBA’s 2012 Strategy, we’ve run a foresight exercise and consulted with our key partners.  What we hears is that  “Yes, we did very well on addressing salinity issues. Yes,   We are becoming the Centre that people will go to for salinity management and to some extend water management but we should do more in view of ICBA’s maturity and the strong partnerships we have built with several Agriculture players”.


The brainstorming session with our key partners was the backbone of our 2013-2023 strategy and also the reason why we changed ICBA’s name to ICBA-Agriculture for Tomorrow. Salinity remains the core of the Centre because the majority of land marginalization is due to salinization; however we aim to address marginalization due to other biophysical reasons, such as soil degradation, water scarcity, etc…. accordingly, ICBA’s Mission is to ‘To work in partnership to deliver agricultural and water scarcity solutions in marginal environments’


ICBA is among the few international research organizations in the world that work on salinity management systems and address agricultural challenges in marginal environments. Since its inception, ICBA has made significant progress in adapting, transferring, and promoting salt-tolerant crops, forages, trees, shrubs and grasses that hold great potential for increasing food and income security of communities living in marginal lands. We have worked in the Gulf States, Middle East, North Africa, West and Central Asia and Turkmenistan, and are fast expanding across other regions and continents with marginal environments. We are also a member of the Association of International Research Centers for Agriculture (AIRCA) consisting of an alliance of 9 international research organizations working to enhance food production in the world.


Over the last century, and namely through the Green Revolution, agricultural productivity has increased substantially in arable lands. Unfortunately, this special attention to the high potential zones has caused imbalanced resource allocation at the expense of regions with poorly endowed natural resources (marginal environments). Creative strategies are needed to improve the livelihood of more than 800 million poor farmers who continue to cultivate resource poor areas in many countries, and many eke out subsistence existence on marginal lands, with inadequate technology to enhance productivity or financial or capital resources. This is a huge gap towards a worldwide poverty reduction and food security that ICBA and its partners are trying to address.


Sustainability is a big part of this conversation, how do you combine sustainability with this project of agriculture for tomorrow?

Unlike what happened in the last century, I believe agriculture of tomorrow, the new agriculture paradigm, should be build sustainably. The actual agriculture production systems are too much focused on inputs and require a major-shift to become more sustainable. Over the last few centuries, we had an abundance of natural resources that we have unfortunately depleted. Going forward, those natural resources, namely WATER and arable land, are scares and need to be shared between populations, and competing sectors.


In view of the natural resources scarcity, the population growth, and the climate change impact, agriculture should be expanded on the basis of maximizing the use efficiency. This should be the case for all inputs, starting from the water, one of the major limiting factors for agriculture in marginal environments.


“The GCC has invested heavily in this sector, which is naturally a difficult sector due to the conditions of this region.

Indeed the GCC region is one of the most arid regions and faces a serious water shortage. Under all the climate change scenarios, the GCC will be further affected and the water scarcity issue will worsen in the next years. That’s why climate change adaptation initiatives are badly required and they have to include water-demand as well as water-supply management for all sectors.


In the UAE for example, more than 80% of available water is used for Agriculture. It’s very comparable to many other countries but the danger is that most of Agriculture water is actually coming from underground aquifers, that has hardly recharged over the last decades. So I believe GCC countries should invest in developing agricultural systems fit for the GCC and should invest in developing technologies to improve water use efficiency in critical crops to the region, such as date palms, forages, etc...


It is an opportunity to showcase the capability of GCC in bringing up innovations that can change the Food-Security paradigm worldwide. I’ll urge them to invest heavily in Research and Development to nurture such innovations. In my perspective, they shouldn’t be producing now, but rather investing in the right research. And once they have the adaptable systems, then they can produce.”


One hundred years from now, is water going to be a problem in GCC?

If we zoom-out and look worldwide, during the last century, world population tripled whereas water use increased six-fold. So the demand for water has seen a dramatic increase in all sectors.


If we want to project what will happen in the next decades, the world population is expected to increase over 9.0 billion by 2050, 34% higher than today. So water demand will increase further to feed the population as well as provide them with the life-style they are looking for. The competition between sectors for water will increase further and unfortunately agriculture might be the loosing sector in this equation. Physical water scarcity is already affecting food production in the arid parts of the world, for example, in North Africa and the Middle East.

Although there are varying opinions on the degree and severity of water scarcity in Asia and Africa, there is a broad agreement, however, that increasing water scarcity will turn ‘‘water’ into a key limiting factor in food production and livelihoods generation for poor people throughout rural Asia and most of Africa, with particularly severe water scarcity in the bread baskets of North-West India and Northern China.


If the water use trend continues the same way in the GCC, you won’t have serious water problems in 100 years, but rather in 20-30 years. The statistics based on our studies and on several other studies shows that in the UAE, if the underground water continues to be pumped at the same rate as now, the aquifer will be exhausted within 60 years. So I think absolutely, the water-scarcity will create serious problems in the GCC. That’s why finding new sources of water is very important.


What would be the solution to this all?

I think there is a suite of solutions that need to be activated. This suite includes Policy solutions, technological solutions and social solutions. If we start from the perspective that water is a very expensive commodity that we need to value and use wisely, all the solutions should feed into rationalizing water, be it for agriculture, industry, or domestic uses.


Reduced water demand in agriculture can be achieved by adopting improved irrigation technologies and deficit irrigation concepts. Sprinkler irrigation, hydrodynamic gates on irrigation canals, and micro-irrigation kits for small farms could all go a long way to improve the efficiency of irrigation. Automatic controls for canal gates are already in place in Morocco, Iran, Iraq, and Pakistan.


Currently water for agriculture is counted in cents whereas for urban use it is counted in dollars. Charging irrigation water on volume basis can assist in managing water demand. Tunisia and Morocco, for example, have shown that incrementally increased water prices encourage consumers to apply water to only most productive crops.


In the Middle East and North Africa regions, unaccounted-for losses are about 50% whereas internationally 20% losses are considered reasonable. Therefore appropriate policies and actions are needed to reduce water losses from water supply system, introduce water saving devices in municipal water use and methods in irrigation, promote cost recovery, liberalize agricultural prices so that cropping patterns can adjust in response to changing technology and market signals.    


We need also to look at the water supply. New sources of water will need to be found if the constantly growing demand for suitable water for drinking, farming, and industry is to be met. ICBA has been working on promoting reuse of all waters for agriculture, be it treated water, drainage water, saline water, etc… The U.N. report estimates that some 2 million tons of waste per day are disposed of within waters. This waste includes industrial trash and chemicals, human waste, and agricultural runoff, such as fertilizers, pesticides, and pesticide residue.


The global wastewater production is roughly 1,500 cubic kilometres per year. Assuming that 1 litre of wastewater pollutes about 8 litres of fresh water, the present burden of water pollution may be as high as 12,000 km3. So wastewater should be cleaned up and reused properly. And as matter of fact, wastewater use for irrigation is being practiced in many countries such as China, Chile, Mexico, and KSA. Egypt and Jordan are using wastewater, although on a limited scale but with prospects of increasing in future.


Water will be the commodity of the future instead of oil?

Absolutely, I think the water footprint will emerge as a priority in the next few years and we will have to be accountable for it as individuals, organizations, and governments.


What could you say are your challenges going forward in this organization? And what would you like to accomplish in next 5 years?

For me sincerely the success will be that we will be able to do agriculture in the marginal environments, right now it is still a costly system, except for few crops. So the way I see it, is that in 5 years we can bring a new agriculture system (or package) that will be based on low quality water, minimal inputs, minimal disturbance of the environment, and that is still viable economically. I would like ICBA to positively impact the small farmers’ livelihood and provide them with solutions that are adaptable to their circumstances. That will be the success in my perspective.