Water for Food

Our Subject and Geographic Areas of Focus

Our Subject Areas of Focus

When it was first established in 2010, WFI did not identify specific subject areas on which to focus its work. Instead, the institute took an exploratory approach, which allowed it to experiment with different topics, make discoveries and learn lessons that would help in developing a focused direction that made the most of its comparable advantages. In this way, the institute was able to advance its program while at the same time generate the lessons and experience needed to develop a clear strategy and operational plan at a later stage.

Now, in this second stage of its development, WFI has the knowledge and experience to identify the specific topics on which it can make a difference. To maximize its strengths, it concentrates on a manageable number of themes of global and local priority that it can pick up quickly and effectively. In doing so, it draws on expertise, capacities and opportunities at NU and its global network of partnerships and Associate Faculty, building on the results of the activities and programs initiated in its first five years (see “Five Year Growth Report: From Inception to Global Influence”).

Specifically, WFI concentrates its research, policy and educational work on the subject areas of global and local priority identified on pages 2-3 of this document:

Closing water and agricultural productivity gaps: WFI contributes to local and global efforts to close productivity gaps in rainfed and irrigated crop and livestock systems in order to improve rural livelihoods and incomes. These efforts include both the management of ‘blue water’ in irrigated agriculture and the management of ‘green water’ in rainfed agriculture through conservation agriculture and other measures. Clearly, a range of agronomic, water, climate, social, economic and institutional factors contribute to water and agricultural productivity gaps. However, WFI will initially focus on building on the pioneering work of the Global Yield Gap and Water Productivity Atlas as well as the University’s expertise in plant breeding and biotechnology development, drought monitoring, and management and use of geospatial technologies. Specific activities include, for example, using remote sensing to monitor and predict yield and water productivity levels in real time and working to develop site-specific options to close identified gaps both locally and globally; implementing innovative projects in partnership with the private sector and social entrepreneurial groups, such as the CIRCLES project; and advancing agricultural science innovations to improve drought tolerance and crop water productivity. Yield gap analysis is an excellent opportunity to use skills available at NU and in Nebraska to solve problems in the developing world. Importantly, the yield gap analysis can be used to make the business case for specific interventions. Special opportunities exist in this area for WFI to be a catalyst to leverage existing resources at the University of Nebraska, including UNL’s Food Science and Technology Department and Biological Systems Engineering and their interest in water use in post-production processes, and the UNL Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Scottsbluff with expertise in livestock production.

Groundwater management for agricultural production: The work here aims at improving groundwater management, drawing on the experience in this area of the State’s institutions and producers, as well as the University’s technical and policy expertise in the subject. WFI’s work in this area focuses on scientific and policy research to improve understanding of the dynamics of linked human and natural components of groundwater, providing analyses, information, and tools that respond to stated stakeholder needs for advancing the management of groundwater systems. Given WFI’s location, a key focus is on groundwater management in the High Plains region, and using the results of this work to inform scientific and policy research on groundwater management worldwide. The goal here is to establish WFI and NU as world leaders in scientific and policy research in the area. Products resulting from this initiative include reports and analyses about specific institutional innovations used by Natural Resources Districts to address important groundwater management issues. Work on groundwater management requires special attention to the “water-energy-food nexus” to understand the connections between water and energy use and agricultural production, and how different management approaches impact the human and environmental outcomes of these intersecting areas.

Enhancing High Productivity Irrigated Agriculture: Work in this area focuses on achieving high productivity in irrigated systems for optimal agricultural production and resource management under different scenarios, building on the expertise in irrigation engineering and water management available at UNL and our partners in the state and worldwide. Work includes for example using remote sensing to monitor and predict yield and water productivity levels in real time and implementing innovative projects in partnership with the private sector and social entrepreneurial groups in Sub-Saharan Africa. Work includes research, technology transfer, and education and outreach to further the goal of increasing water productivity in all forms of irrigated agriculture. Taking into account that the appropriate irrigation technology to use in any region is context specific and depends on multiple physical, environmental and socio-economic variables, topics include solar powered pumping for small wells, drip and center pivot systems for small-holder and large-scale production, deficit irrigation techniques, variable rate irrigation, and management and policy issues and governance. We have the opportunity to build a world-class recognized program for problem solving in irrigated agricultural development with strong partnerships and research projects in strategic countries to WFI and important agricultural regions of the world. One important dimension of this work relates to drought management and prediction. The importance of irrigation to guarantee crop production under drought conditions cannot be ignored. However, water resources are finite, so the development of techniques and methods to cope with drought should be considered when optimizing limited resources for crop production. These could include drought tolerant crop varieties, early drought detection using remote sensing, water management under drought conditions, and providing policy analysis surrounding risk management tools for deficit irrigation.

Freshwater and Agricultural Ecosystems and Public Health: WFI contributes to ensuring that efforts to improve water and food security also advance public health and ensure ecosystem integrity by bringing to bear the University’s expertise in natural resources management; water quality analysis and technology; and public health. Work focuses on topics where there is particular expertise. Specific contributions could include building resilience to climate extremes; analyses of the health implications of water re-use for agriculture and of seasonality in water and food systems; systems approaches to better understand the unintended consequences of water/food policies on health; the interactive use of hydro-informatics and population-based social/behavioral informatics tools; the use of Health Impact Assessments in addressing water for food issues; and studies of the impacts of floods and droughts on the health of vulnerable people, especially women and children. Special opportunities exist in this area for WFI to be a catalyst to leverage existing resources at the University of Nebraska, in particular the School of Natural Resources at UNL and the College of Public Health at UNMC. While this work is still in its very early stages, WFI aspires to develop it into a world-class recognized program for problem solving in ecosystems and public health aspects of water and food security.

In addition, the WFI works on a subject area of global and local priority focus (see pages 2-3) that cuts across the four other subject areas: the management of agricultural drought. In this subject area, WFI works closely with the NDMC, with which it has entered into a long-term affiliation agreement. Joint WFI-NDMC activities enable the globally-recognized work of the NDMC on drought monitoring and mitigation and on ways to reduce societal vulnerability to drought through preparedness and risk management to add value to WFI’s work on water and agricultural productivity, groundwater management, water conservation policies, and irrigated agriculture. An example of this kind of joint WFI/NDMC work is a recently approved USAID-funded project to develop a Regional Drought Management System (RDMS) for the Middle East and North Africa, which will focus on drought risk management through the development of monitoring and early warning systems, and preparedness and mitigation measures. The project, which also involves the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture and FAO, will serve the region by establishing a regional drought monitoring and early warning system and associated information delivery systems, providing assessment of drought vulnerabilities and impacts, and developing actions and measures to mitigate and respond to drought impacts. The RDMS will monitor regional drought conditions, assist with drought planning and coordination activities, and assist officials who are charged with relief efforts by providing “value-added” information during drought events.

Finally, in its work in Nebraska, the WFI works closely with the Nebraska Water Center, which is part of the WFI but focuses on a broader set of water issues of priority importance to the state of Nebraska, as defined by the University’s Water Resources Advisory Panel (WRAP) and other stakeholders. These priority issues include but are not limited to those relating to water use for food production, and encompass water quantity, water quality, and basin-specific issues. Key topical areas include impacts of climate and weather on water resources; understanding and protecting water quality; groundwater-surface water interactions; improving water efficiency in crop production; drinking water and wastewater quality and management; ecosystems, ecology and adaptive management; economic impacts of water management decisions; and human dimensions of water use. (See Figure 1.)
Figure 1. Interface between WFI and NWC activities. The green cell depicts the areas in which both WFI and NWC are active. The blue cell depicts the topical and geographical areas where NWC is exclusively active. The yellow cell depicts where WFI is exclusively active.

Importantly, all activities depicted in green in Figure 1 are co-branded as WFI/NWC activities, with both logos, regardless of whether WFI or NWC takes the lead. Activities depicted in yellow are branded as WFI activities, whereas those in blue are branded as NWC activities.

Our Geographical Areas of Focus

In carrying out its work in its subject areas of focus, WFI concentrates on geographical locations that provide the greatest opportunities to address its subject areas and/or have an impact and be effective. In its initial five years, these have been:

  • Nebraska and the region surrounding it, i.e. the major food-producing heartland of the USA.
  • India, China and Brazil, the big food producing countries that are also experiencing significant water stress and which are also priority countries for the University of Nebraska as a whole, as well as consumers and/or producers of the same main commodities as Nebraska
  • A small number of countries within Sub-Saharan Africa, starting with Tanzania, where food security concerns are great and where better management of water is needed to improve food production.
  • The Middle East and North Africa region (MENA), which is the area of greatest water scarcity in the world and where the University is involved through the MENA network of water centers of excellence and other activities.

Work in India, China and Brazil have provided opportunities to work on big problems that are important not only nationally but globally. Brazil also provides special opportunities to work with partners in educating the next generation of leaders able to deal with the country’s huge water and food issues in a comprehensive way.

Importantly, the Institute seeks to ensure that its work in Nebraska benefits from WFI’s global work and vice versa. Since WFI focuses on topics that are important both to Nebraska and globally, it is well placed to ensure synergy between the work it carries out globally and the projects it carries out in Nebraska.

WFI also takes specific steps to connect its work in Nebraska with its global work. Where relevant, WFI shares the results and outcomes of its overseas research and policy work with stakeholders in Nebraska, and helps to make Nebraska’s experiences in each of its four subject areas better known in other countries. For example, WFI’s first policy report focuses on Nebraska’s experience in groundwater management and the Natural Resources Districts.

In its work both in Nebraska and internationally on issues in which we have a comparative advantage, WFI seeks to ensure that any innovations that it helps develop in Nebraska are useful overseas and vice versa, and that the skills WFI is able to draw on at NU and in Nebraska can be used to solve problems elsewhere (See Figure 1).

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