Sustainable provision of water and food – the Water and Food Award

This is an extract from my  presentation as Application Manager of the Water and Food Award at  the recent Ambassadors event at the Marriott hotel in Copenhagen on 2 March 2010.

They say that at the beginning of every century, major changes, inconceivable in the previous century, manifest themselves. In the last century few thought man could fly, but here we are! What are the inconceivable changes awaiting us in this century? We hear people saying that feeding everyone on the planet is one of these grand challenges that we inconceivably can win over. At present, over one billion are starving and the population is set to increase in our lifetimes, or the lifetimes of the generation after ours, to nine billion.

Our task at WAF is bring attention to the situation and the challenge in a way that offers a message of hope. That means promoting sustainable solutions to feeding the planet. But what is a sustainable situation?

This sketch shows what I mean. Take a geographical area, a municipality, a country a region or even a whole continent. It will have some organisms living on it, some of them human, Throw in some nature, some technical infrastructure some sun and wind and rain. Oh yes, not to forget most places have monetary systems as well.

If people in this region can be clothed, housed and fed, and that future generations have the same possibility, then you could say the area is sustainable. This all sounds very simple I know, and in fact, many children’s pictures ( have a look next time you get the opportunity) show this situation, with sun and rain, nature, rivers, animals a house with a garden and people. It just means that sustainability is something we are born with and everyone understands.

Even though it sounds simple, many places, like the UK, are not sustainable. The population of the UK manages to live as it does thanks to

  • “Ghost” acres growing food in other countries
  • Drawing down, or “borrowing” from future generations by depleting soil, removing forests and depleting ecosystems
  • Using “fossil acres” in the form of oil, coal and gas

Up to one quarter of fossil fuel is used in food provision, so the fact that Britain’s (and Denmark’s for that matter) oil supplies are coming to or past their peak presents a real challenge. This grand challenge is not going to be solved by the thinking of the past; we need an innovative approach, to “think outside the box”.

There are some amazing technologies available to us though, and anyone interested in sustainable food provision should be aware of them. For example, there is a technology to capture most of the nitrogen and phosphorous leaving the waste streams of residential dwellings. It returns these essential nutrients to the soil as fertiliser, eliminating the need for artificial fertilizers requiring huge energy inputs.

There is another technology to plough a field without a tractor, or any fossil fuel. It runs on renewable energy, and requires very little management except for an external guidance device that keeps it inside the area to be ploughed. You leave this device in the field and after a while the whole field is ploughed and ready for planting. This device also produces high quality protein as a by-product.What about this next technology that delivers top-class organic vegetables to your door, requiring no fossil energy for their transport.

There is even a technology that provides sustainable water purification. Requiring no fossil fuel, it cleans water, eliminates bacteria and viruses and delivers almost pure distilled water direct, requiring no transport.So what are we looking for in our applicants? We look for a story with a happy end. A starting situation where people in a certain area are not getting enough food or water, and intervention, something the initiative brings to the area, and results that are sustainable and replicable.

One good example is from South America, an initiative approached villages experiencing hunger and environmental degradation

  • The initiative helped some 1500 people create and market local products
  • The villagers recovered from hunger and were able to tend local food production

Another inspiring initiative landscaped an area of soil infertile from salt. The swales of the landscaping captured rainwater, and they planted trees etc. to create soil. The area now produces oranges, figs and other fruits. The initiative trained representatives from the local agricultural college so they can carry on in the area.

Another initiative teaches slum dwellers to create “instant” gardens using organic waste. This has helped kick start the economy by providing food, and ensuring people have the energy to be entrepreneurial. It also helped alleviate the health hazard from rotting waste.

Finally, a more high-tech solution to the problem of providing water without depleting the forests. A plastic device you fill with water, expose to the sun. An automatic device that needs no electricity indicates when the water has been purified. By using this instead of boiling water, the forests can be spared. The forests in turn ensure a good micro climate in the area that is good for growing crops.

All of these initiatives and more are available to sponsors and other partners in our RFA Requests For Assistance exchange. Each initiative posts its needs and updates its status regularly, each sponsor and partner has its own page in the exchange. Corporations can download status reports and spread the information to employees and other partners to keep them updated and informed of how the corporation is supporting the human right of water and food. Corporations may even respond directly to the requests from projects for assistance be it equipment, advice, funding, training etc.

In this way we hope our award organisation contributes to what I believe we all want to see: care for people, care for the Earth and a fare share for all.

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