Study urges global cooperation to protect water, food security in African river basins

An international team led by the Environmental Intelligence for Global Change Lab at Politecnico di Milano in collaboration with researchers from Cornell University’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Tufts University, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, has found that it is important to carefully coordinate global climate change mitigation policies to reduce unintended impacts to the water-energy-food nexus in African river basins.

The study, published Feb. 1 in Nature Climate Change, explores more than 7,000 future scenarios that combine different climate and socio-economic projections with alternative mitigation policies. Results show that policy fragmentation between developed and developing countries in their approach to addressing carbon emissions from land-use changes can increase vulnerabilities in African basins.

aerial view of field
Sugar cane fields require irrigation throughout the year via pivot irrigation, which uses sprinklers rotating around a central water pump generating gigantic circles. Water thirsty crops often produce considerable environmental impacts. Credit: ATEC-3D.

Specifically, the research shows how such fragmented policies produce favorable conditions for the realization of extensive agricultural projects in Africa where the price associated to the land-use change emission is low. This, however, could generate irrigation demands that are two times higher than under globally coordinated approaches to emissions reductions, that can both address climate change and reduce local vulnerabilities as higher irrigation demands constrain the availability of water resources for hydropower production or the provision of ecosystem services particularly in river deltas.

The study sheds light on the importance of connecting global climate change mitigation policies to their potential impacts on local multisector dynamics. The work also highlights that improved exploration of the broader range of possible future scenarios has value for supporting policy makers in understanding synergies, tradeoffs, and vulnerabilities and in prioritizing sustainable mitigation and adaptation solutions. Notably, policy makers may have to look beyond their borders to avoid water-use outsourcing and to ensure environmental and climate justice for all.

“There is no doubt that it is absolutely critical to immediately act to mitigate the climate crisis, but our approach can’t be focused on sectors in isolation or ignore how local challenges may evolve,” said Patrick Reed, the Joseph C. Ford Professor of Engineering at Cornell University and co-author of the study. “The Zambezi serves as an important example in this study that illustrates how global land use policies can increase tensions and tradeoffs across impacted water, energy, and agricultural systems.”

This research is one of the main outputs of the EU Horizon 2020 project Decision Analytic Framework to explore the water-energy-food Nexus in complex transboundary water resource systems of fast developing countries (DAFNE), which promoted a participatory planning and management of water resources to identify sustainable development pathways addressing the water-energy-food nexus in the Zambezi Watercourse and the Omo-Turkana Basin. The DAFNE project developed a decision-analytic model integrating system analysis tools from different research fields – mathematical models, optimization algorithms, climate and socio-economic projections, analysis of satellite and drone imagery - to explore the economic, social and environmental dimensions of alternative development pathways with the participation of local stakeholders.

For more information, read "Mitigation north and impact south" in Nature.

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