Professor Quentin Grafton interview: the water-food-energy nexus and addressing wicked problems

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]An interview with Professor Quentin Grafton, an economist from the Australian National University who works at the nexus between food, water, energy, and the environment. Quentin discusses the future of food and farming in light of the 2008/09 food crises; some networks and resources that may be used to engage with these problems; participatory planning processes, which may be used to help address these problems in the future; and gives some examples from the Asia Pacific region where these issues are playing out.

Interview topics

  • Quentin’s motivations for working on the food-water-energy-environment nexus
  • Managing the water crisis from a food security perspective.
  • Adapting the process to fit the context
  • Emerging water issues in the Asia-Pacific region
  • A need to be adaptable when faced with complexity and the lack of a collective vision
  • The urgent need to act
  • The requirement for a shift in thinking and awareness.
  • How the water, food, and energy sectors might engage more effectively?
  • Solving problems together through evidence-based scenarios
  • Links to resources and how to get involved

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How Quentin came to be involved in policy and economics as they intersect with food, water, energy and the environment

I suppose I’ve always been concerned about the issues, about the environment around natural resources, and of course, in Australia, we suffer from droughts. Occasionally some very severe droughts! So, if you live in Australia, you can’t possibly not be concerned about water at some stage you know, when a drought hits. But, also from flooding. We have substantial flooding issues in Australia at certain times. So that’s the water motivation.

The issue about engaging with public policy, engaging with decision-makers, engaging around the nexus [of] food, energy, environment and water… Well, I think that probably has its antecedents in the context of what was going on in the food crisis of 2008–2009.

You know, that was a food price crisis in the sense food prices increased dramatically over a relatively short period of time and then that led to the work done by the Foresight Group headed by Sir John Beddington and Charles Godfray in the UK and supported by others to deliver ‘The Perfect Storm’. That ‘Perfect Storm’ really took the next step in a summary synthesis and also in some original thinking to say “Well, hey, where we are going in the context of food? Where are we going in the context of key inputs into the production of food? Land, of course, but certainly water?” And they identified a range of risks that needed to be responded to over the coming decades. So I think that was an important report.

I was there at one of its releases and subsequently wanted to engage myself and to bring others on board to actually respond to those risks and see what we could do. That ultimately led in 2014 to a workshop that we organized in Oxford via the UNESCO co-chair here at the Australian National University, organized in Oxford with some partners obviously at Oxford and elsewhere. Sir John Beddington, who led the Foresight work on ‘The Perfect Storm’ also joined us for an afternoon. So, at that point, we wanted to engage and say “What are we going to do? How are we going to do this?”, and we wanted to think about where our value-add was.

The conclusion by the group at that time was that we wanted to engage in terms of better decision-making in the context of risk and the nexus.and that’s pretty much what we’ve done. So that meeting in the Saint Margaret’s College in July of 2014 then spurred a whole range of activity which has happened in the last two and a half years or so. In particular, I can identify some milestones along the way. But that sort of gives you a sense of the motivation and who we’ve tried to connect with and why we’re doing what we’re doing.

Approaches to managing the water aspects of natural systems (uncontrollable drought/flood cycles) from the perspective of food security.

We created a network, the Food, Energy, Environment, Water Network, and, going back to 2014, we’ve been engaged in a variety of places — in South Asia, Vietnam and elsewhere — in terms of coming up with processes that allow decision-makers to think through the risks and then to think about options and to respond to those risks; thinking of consequences; thinking of the sorts of triggers that lead to these risks. So that’s essentially what we’ve been doing.

How can that be applied? Well, it can be applied in probably one thousand and one ways. We’ve applied it in the context of Vietnam in the Lam Dong Province in the context of water security. There, you know, at the end of 2015, there was an El Niño event, as most of your listeners will be familiar with. That triggered issues in the context of water scarcity and then also the consideration about what they need to do in terms of water and, in particular, food production. It was a demand-driven process: they came to us; we then worked with them in engaging with decision-makers and stakeholders. So, a participatory approach was used. Also, coupled with that, causal risks, by using the evidence that they had and then going back and doing additional work and analysis of our own and then giving them a set of options.

That really is a process that takes you from, you know, ‘A’, to wherever you want to take it to. Hopefully, in this case, to lead to better-informed decision-making. It doesn’t guarantee good decision-making in any sense, but it certainly gives you a step in the right — multiple steps in the right direction. So that’s the sort of stuff that we’ve done in the context of food and food security that certainly had a food dimension in Vietnam.

We’ve worked in South Asia and that’s been in relation to the Eastern Gangetic Plains. There’s a whole set of issues there that have related to resilience and the ability of the farming systems … that under multiple different types of farming systems … how they can respond to a variety of shocks. In particular, climate change, and the trick is to find the investment level that will come from there.

We were engaged in terms of looking at conservation agriculture and sustainable intensification — the so-called CASI — and looking at those innovations and to what extent they’re resilient; to what extent they respond to the sorts of risks that those systems have. So that’s still work in progress.

But there again, we’ve adopted this process, this risk options assessment for decision-making — it’s an acronym which comes out as ROAD — as a process to engage with people: decision-makers and stakeholders.

There again, there is no guarantee you’re going to get — you know, get an answer ‘42’. These are complex problems and you don’t necessarily solve a complex problem. You help to resolve it, get understanding and actually think about some options and prioritization of actions. That’s what we’re trying to do there in that context and that’s very much got a food dimension and a livelihood dimension to it.

In reality, there’s only so much time given for these processes and there’s only so much budget. And so in that context, you have to cut your cloth, so to speak, to meet what needs to be done in the time and budget available. That means that, ultimately, that corners will be cut and that’s true not just in terms of what we do in the ROAD process but it’ll be true in any piece of work. You can’t—you only have limited time and on a limited budget, so you actually have to do the best that you can.

I don’t think in reality you can achieve perfection and respond to complex problems. What you’re doing is you’re leading to a better set of outcomes that you would otherwise not have been able to do without this process. I think that’s the ‘judgment call’. Did we lead to some better outcomes, better decision-making that would not have happened otherwise? I think that’s the space that you have to operate in for the real world. You know, I think an incremental improvement — sometimes it could be transformational, it’s quite possible — but it’s an improvement relative to what it would have been without it.

Evaluating and adapting

You have to follow through on what was done and what did it lead to. I mean in the case of a big system like the Eastern Gangetic Plains, you can’t track change over a short space of time. We’re talking more than 300 million people live in the rural areas. It’s a lot. This is a huge number of people. So if you’re talking about any transformational change, you have to be talking in many years. That’s the sort of time frame you have to think of and the complexity of the problems that the people there have to live with. So in that sense, you can only look at a marginal change, an improvement of where you would have been without this. You can’t think about what you can’t measure — the big-picture changes — unless you’ve got several years to track performance.

How we’ve done the ROAD process in Vietnam is different from how we’ve done the ROAD process in South Asia. It’s just a different context. You have to do things differently and you have to do the process differently. You learn as much as you can from the partners you’re working with, get their advice, and then adapt. So the process itself has to be adaptable and it is. And we certainly adapted it in a different way in South Asia than in Vietnam. So that comes with what you need to do as well, to be relevant and be effective.

It’s a long-term and comprehensive type of process. You can certainly get cases where some people’s yields have gone up, and some people are worse off. I mean, you know the nature, what the intervention is so yeah, you have to be very careful about that and have to be as comprehensive as you can.

Emerging issues in the Asia-Pacific related to water, and where there may be opportunities for (or barriers to) using an integrated perspective, such as the one you work with, to address those kinds of issues.

I think the key issues are already out there and I think people know about them and they’re certainly being documented. …You’ve got particular places where you know, water is out at particular times of the year; some places, all of the year. You also have water quality issues. So it’s really a function of how much water is being used and when it’s being used, and by whom it’s being used, and that is connected to, of course, to agriculture in particular. So I would say that that’s a burning issue right now, is water in agriculture, water in food production, in some key areas.

I’ve mentioned the Eastern Gangetic Plains but actually, it’s the North-western Gangetic Plains where it’s most evident. There’s lots of documentation about groundwater depletion; there’s also an issue of water quality. It’s a, it’s most certainly a complex problem there, and that’s clearly a major focal point, given the large population and the importance of food production in that region. But you know it goes beyond that. It goes to the Indus in Pakistan. There are a set of issues obviously in the Middle East, related to water. You go, as I’ve mentioned, Vietnam. But you know, Vietnam is facing a set of issues there in terms of climate change.

Climate change is relevant for all of those regions, but it’s a multiplier in the sense that the risks particularly – it’s a surprising issue for some – you know, Vietnam gets a lot of rain and it has some major rivers including the Mekong. So it’s surprising you’d be encountering – to some people it’s surprising you’d be encountering – water issues in a country like Vietnam. But yes, they are absolutely there.

Then of course, how we use the river systems. You know, there’s a whole set of controversies about the number of dams that will be built on the Mekong, the implications and consequences of that for food production but also for the environment. So you take the Mekong; you take the Ganges; you take the Indus; and then you take groundwater aquifers around those, particularly in South Asia, and you’ve got a whole set of issues. We’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of millions of people that are affected by water quality and water availability.

And the way we respond to that of course, is to address issues of intertemporal context, in the sense that if we continue ‘business as usual’ we’re clearly going to — those places are going to — it’s going to get worse — and it’s bad enough as it is! You know, India had massive problems in the last 12 to 18 months in a drought that is now ended in most places, but it was just amazing the number of problems — and the population is growing, in absolute terms, substantially.

So you have to respond to them in a variety of ways and it’s not … one of them is signals about pricing the water. Then, support for people who need the water and to make sure that they’re not at the end of the line, so to speak, especially the vulnerable. So there’s really a whole range of things that have to be thought through. It’s not a single initiative. It’s a range of things that need to be done and over a long period of time. We in the West tend to think “Oh well, let’s do something in the next year or two”. Or 2 to 3 years, you know, is typically the planning horizon and in those sorts of places you need to have a decade-plus long outlook about what needs to be done, how it will be done, how it will be financed, Then there is just the nitty-gritty implementation of what happens. And there’s no —it’s not like you can say in 2017 “Oh, this is what we’re going to do from now to 2027 and 2037, and every step of the way is: we’ll do this in February 2022 and we’ll do this in March of 2028. I mean, that’s not how it works and it’ll never work that way.

So all you can do is to say “We’ve got a vision of what we want”. Or what we don’t want, I suppose, is the first place to start. Then you work back and say “Well, if this is where we want to be, well, how are we going to get there?” And you work back over the timeframes and what’s necessary, what needs to be done; sequencing, really, a ladder of interventions and thinking about that, but realising that whatever you’ve come up with, it’s going to have to be extremely adaptable to changed circumstances and barriers that you may not have thought through or worked through. Then you need to think about experiments, in the sense that you want to try things out to see, if it works in some locations, maybe it could be upscaled elsewhere; maybe not. So it’s — that’s the sort of if you could do it — and no one’s doing it — but if you could do it, that’s the sort of process you’d have to go through.

Typically, what is happening is that there are individual parts of that puzzle that people are responding to in a particular district or even a particular state perhaps. But the collective, comprehensive picture is just, well, sadly it’s just not happening. It’s, it does exist at a basin-scale to the extent that the Ganga is a major priority for the Indian federal government, but even there this sort of thing I’m talking about is not happening in an integrated way. Certainly, there’s an attempt to develop a set of processes to respond to the crying out need of what needs to be done.

The need to be adaptable in the face of complexities and look at a range of possible solutions, in the absence of a collective vision or collective direction, being aware of the possible good and bad consequences for different groups of people affected.

I wouldn’t be recommending water markets as a generalization. Water markets have worked very successfully in Australia, but I don’t think that they would work successfully in quite a number of countries who don’t have the institutional framework around that and if you’ve got inequitable land distribution, you know and powerful relationships. You can see that you can get into a problem there when you start to have water rights and implications that that might lead to.

So then again it’s about adapting, thinking about what works, what makes sense but certainly, from the water pricing context, you don’t need water markets there and water pricing. You have to think this through. If there’s too much water being used and even that is happening by you know even in poor farmers you have to say well, you know that’s groundwater and there’s only so much left. You actually have to — you have to do something about that. So pricing water beyond say — some given amount that may be free or a very low charge is clearly one approach that would need to be considered as one option on the table so to speak. It can’t just be taken off the table and say no, we can’t have water pricing. Doesn’t make a lot of sense when you’ve got a crisis that’s already in place and unfolding. You’d want to have all the options on the table and think them through carefully and think about the consequences of not having water pricing which is very severe. So those are the sorts of things I would be arguing for.

In terms of vision, I think there’s certainly a lot of vision out there. You know, Prime Minister Modi has got a vision of cleaning the Ganga and all that and that goes back well before he was prime minister back to the 1980s and well before that I have no doubt. So certainly there’s vision and certainly they have a budget, but the question is how do you take this on: a wicked problem, as not a tame problem that you know is a complex problem but is all sorts of complexities around in the context of the trade-offs, disputes about the evidence, winners and losers, uncertainty of what are the actions will lead to and all those sorts of characteristics of a wicked problem. They are not the sort of problems that will get solved. You know you can help to resolve them, but they don’t get solved by a particular intervention at a particular point in time. It’s multiple sets of interventions over a longer period of time, and I think that’s the way to approach this and I agree with you.

The key point is that it’s got to be integrated, it’s got to be an adaptable approach and it’s got to really involve people. It sounds trite to say this but it’s true. I mean, you can’t have a resolution of wicked problems without having people engaged in a consultative way, it’s just not going to work and although there are hard approaches – infrastructure can and has in the past and no doubt would contribute to helping in terms of resolving some of the issues – it can’t be simply a hard approach. There have to be soft approaches engaging with people and most importantly (and this gets back to when we started this conversation) is the issues of risks. Too often I hear from people “oh, we can’t do this, we can’t do that, you know it’s just too costly.” and then I do the analysis and say “well, you know if you don’t do something there are some very, very big costs coming your way”.

Timeframes: need to act now because there are very severe consequences ahead if we don’t.

I don’t think there’s any choice; it’s not like we can think about it for the next two decades. I think we have to do something now and we can’t wait. We actually have to engage and we’ll learn by doing, and hopefully, we’ll make the right call and we won’t always get it right but we’ll learn from it and then, hopefully, get some outcomes for people, help people on the ground. But there’s no magic bullet. There’s no panacea. It’s not an easy tame problem, they’re most certainly wicked problems. But we cannot stand aside just because they’re wicked problems and not do anything about it. The consequences are very, very severe. I’ve done some modelling on this and others have as well and the conclusions I think it’s pretty clear that there will be some very severe sets of issues for people in these locations and they’re not just restricted to South Asia and South-East Asia and other locations. You know within the next few decades and indeed in some of these places by 2030, so that’s not – you know that’s just 13 years away.

We’ve got to grab the bull by the horns so to speak and actually start acting on this and my concern is that we’re not, that we’re not doing the right things. We’re typically using a palliative approaches we’re using band-aids we’ll fix this here, we’ll fix it there and I just don’t see that is what’s required for this for the scale of the problem. I don’t think it’s adequate.

Certainly, time frames are certainly part of it. You know you’ve got 3 years to deliver on a project. Well, that’s fine but you know if you really want to make a difference in the Eastern Gangetic Plains you’ve got to be thinking a decade-plus, so to start and there are funding organizations that are doing that. I’m not saying that no one’s thinking that way, but it’s not enough.

So yeah, I think all of that, all of the above but I’m not a doom and gloom person. I’m not going to raise my hands and say oh my gosh, you know it’s too hard too difficult. There are ways that we can move this forward, it requires more than a few individuals, it requires obviously a movement for change here. But I think we have to do it.

Shifts in thinking and awareness

I’m certainly in some sense comforted and in some sense concerned by what happened with the food price crisis of 2008-2009 and have seen higher prices even before those years. There was a big shift in thinking at the very highest levels which have led to a whole range of things, I think positive outcomes in the context of food. Although you know with prices declining substantially since their peak, some people are back to well, you know the business as usual. Let’s not worry too much.

So I can see change does happen and I can see in the context of water that there is now at least the awareness that this is a major global problem. Certainly at Davos also for example, the world’s leaders they’re called but they certainly met there in 2015. Water crises are one of the world’s biggest risks going forward. So there’s at least a recognition of that problem and if you go back ten years ago, people weren’t saying that. So it’s a step forward and, first the recognition, then what do we do about it, and then make sure we get it right whatever we do.

I think often that it requires a crisis to change business as usual because if it ain’t broke if you think it ain’t broke then why will you fix it. And typically the change that’s required, is going to disadvantage somebody or other along the way. So there has to be some energy, movement and motivation to actually bring about the change. And a crisis is one of the things.

I mean there already is a crisis. There’s already a crisis in these places so it’s not like we have wait for this. It’s going to get even bigger if we don’t deal with.

The water sector has identified that they don’t know how to engage well with the agricultural and food production sectors. Can you tell them how to engage more effectively?

I think the water sector comes in different shapes and sizes. You’ve got the water-energy sector and they typically don’t engage at all. But you also have the water sector in the context of let’s say the urban water utilities. They will, and there has been some engagement with the agricultural sector in terms of the climate to protect their water supplies or even buy additional, get additional water from alternative sources. So I think there’s some realization on that front and connecting there, but I mean, how do you do it? Well, you know I’m a great believer, not that I suggest it’s a panacea /silver bullet, but I’m a great believer in what people have been doing. I mentioned the Foresight work with Sir John Beddington, ‘The Perfect Storm’, and I’m a great believer in the foresight-type workshops. They are not the end of this process, they’re the beginning of a process and ‘foresight’ does allow you to bring in different stakeholders and look through from their different perspectives. What’s going on for them?

Fore sighting again can come in different shapes and sizes but really it’s setting out a range of possibilities into the future. So it’s forward-looking. It’s not predicting the future. It’s saying “Well, if we assume this or if we think this is going to continue, let’s say business, as usual, this is where we’re going to end up you know and you go through the evidence and you back that up and it’s clearly evidence-based. And then you look at alternatives and you get people to engage as well: what can be done if we think that’s a problem, and typically, with fore sighting, you are looking at a problem that’s likely to get worse with business as usual. Then you engage about what do we do about it? You don’t go in and say “Well, we should do x, y and z”. You know the people in the room the people who are engaged in those sort of processes, they themselves come up with what they think should be done, and typically, as I said wicked problems. It’s not going to be straight forward; people have different views or competing views but you going to at least have to do that process to actually feel that you can make headway, so to speak. So I think that’s — I think it’s an important way of doing and I think it has been successful and successfully done.

And then what we’re doing in terms of this network, the Food, Energy, Environment and Water network that I’m a member of, that we created in 2014 in Oxford. That has a process to it, a risk and options assessment for decision-making, ROAD, that involves stakeholder participatory approaches and causal risk, so there again, you’re thinking about what might happen given these sets of actions, what are the sorts of things that can be done.

So that as I said, no magic bullet but those are the sorts of processes and I think, certainly from our experience, move us forward. Doesn’t take us all way but those are the sorts of things I would suggest that need to be done. We have to do more than that but I think that’s the sort of thing we need to be doing.

In practice, bringing in key stakeholders, with evidence-based scenarios that have been mapped out for discussion to identify possible outcomes and solutions in that context?

People have been doing that and it’s quite a bit different but the idea of policy dialogues, there’s the support for that from various funding agencies to do policy dialogues and that can incorporate fore sighting within it. But yes, you don’t have to get everyone in the room and it doesn’t happen at one time but it is it’s a process that I think is useful to follow and I think it’s – certainly when you have these divides across different sectors, divides across stakeholders; it’s a process that. I don’t think you’ve got any choice but to follow something like that, whatever you want to call it. But bringing people together, get them thinking about options again and thinking about where the future is going to take them. I mean, really it’s really part and parcel of what has to be done.

It makes me wonder why we actually have conferences in the current format that we do, and why this isn’t being incorporated into conferences for example, when we have the right people there.

Oh, I absolutely agree with you. There are so many conferences. And typically, it’s a few worthy people of course but telling us what x, y or z is. It’s not up—they’re not participatory and of course, science is part of it. But it depends what the purpose of it, if it’s a conference of foreign ministers or ministerial advisers, etcetera to bring them together, to make a decision or to make an announcement. That’s one thing. But I’m saying there are other things that have to be done and particularly, in food and then water and then across the nexus.

So really, for example, a great way to do this would be to identify key stakeholders say within the country or basin that are working both on the water-side of things and also the food side of things.

Other points Quentin wants to make

One of the things I want to say is that there are a lot of good people working on these problems. It’s not like there’s just one or two, there are lots of good people working on them but I think that the challenge that we face is to actually think integrated water resource management and, in a water security framework as the UN would describe it. Those are the sorts of integrated comprehensive type approaches I think are lacking and I think they are in fact, what are required to face these wicked problems. So we’ll certainly need to do better and but as I said I’m hopeful. I think the identification of Nexus issues that have come in the last few years. There’s a number of things that I think we’re moving the right direction. My concern is that we’re not moving fast enough, and but, we’ve just got to work harder and smarter, I suppose. So I think there are some positive things that are happening. The concern that I have and others have is just that the necessity to do something, to do things faster than we’re doing. It’s a real tension in the system. It’s a real tension. You get these problems have taken a while to arise and they will take a considerable time to be improved on.

Let me talk to something constructive and positive and optimistic. The Rockefeller Foundation has set up a website called Zillient, which focuses on resilient decision-making. So that’s an example of where you’re trying to get across learnings from different places so we cannot reinvent wheels. They’re aware of that and they’ve certainly got a lot of traction on the issue of resilience and resilient decision-making in the last 2 to 3 years. I think that was a positive signal that people have started recognizing the need for this. We just have to, where these things happen, support them as best as we can. We in our network we’re trying to do that and but others are as well.

Yeah, there’s a lot of amazing work going on that recognizes also, the psychology behind making a change, that I really appreciated because you don’t—a lot of times if you find materials covering a lot of the tools and techniques.

After everything that we’ve spoken about, I’m wondering about the people who are listening who say “I’m really passionate about what Quentin is talking about, I really want to be a part of this movement, I want to become more informed, I want to join the tide of people doing the best practice in terms of making this change” and I’m wondering what advice you would be able to provide for those people or what direction or just readings of your knowledge that they could pick up.

Look, I think people can do contribute in all sorts of different ways, okay so some people are busy, some people have more money than others, and some people have the ability to contribute directly in their own time. I think there are a thousand and one ways people can contribute. The first thing I would say to them is to get informed. There’s a lot of stuff out there, so to speak.

I would ask people to first of all – from my perspective since you are asking me — I would say go to the FE2W that’s the Food, Energy, Environment and Water Network website. FE2W and you will see in there a global food and water system platform. It’s free, we do it for free and anyone can use that free of charge. It has a lot of time and effort behind it but it allows people just to think and see. They can make their own assumptions about what might happen in the future in terms of crop yield, in terms of water use by crops and then they can see for themselves water deficits, food synthesis, whatever it is depending on what they want to assume by countries. So I would say that’s a useful step to engage that way.

I’d also recommend the Global Water Forum. And so, if you’ve got a particular interest in water and obviously, your listeners do have an interest in water. I would say yes there are multiple websites to go to but I would say the Global Water Forum that’s something we established a few years ago really as a repository of good information that’s gone through some pretty careful filters. So you can be pretty sure the information up there is very much evidence-based and written by experienced people who have got some insight. There’s a lot of material there that you can draw on.

I’d say that’s the first step and the second step is then to think about what you as an individual or group of individuals can do to support. You have to make your own call on that. But I think there are many things that can and should be done and one of them of course, if you’re living in a rich country is to make sure that your representatives are aware of the issues that you would now have no doubt been informed about. That these things figure in terms of their thinking at some point or other. I think that’s important and then you can do more. There’s a lot more that can be done but we really do what’s possible. I think the key thing, as you’ve pointed out, Karen, is that we all have to do something, and not doing that will lead us down a very, very unpleasant path. So let’s avoid that.

The ROAD, the risk and options assessment decision-making guide is available also on the website there as well. So if you want a guide of what we’ve done and how we developed and if you want to take that and use it. It’s again, free to use and go ahead and do it because it’s what we’ve come up with so far and welcome for others to take advantage of what efforts we put into it to develop it.

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The global water crisis and its link to food

Quentin discusses how moving toward the ideas of the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos (2015), defined water crises as the worlds biggest risk He mentions that If you go back 10 years ago, people were not saying that.

Quentin warned against a reluctance to address these issues because of their complexity. He suggests that not engaging with people and complexity means severe consequences related to water scarcity by 2030 with business as usual. There are clearly visions of how they can be addressed, but how do you take these wicked problems that are complex in terms of trade-offs, disputes about evidence, winners and losers and uncertainty and solve them. They don’t get solved by a single intervention, and need sustained efforts that need to be adaptive, integrated and involve people.

Unfortunately, crises are often required to enact the level of change required in this situation, which is when people become disadvantaged. In the interview, it is discussed how there are already existing crises to act as drivers to provide this motivation.

The 2008/2009 food crisis

The food crisis of 2008/2009 was a major driver for change and led to a high-level reflection regarding food security. It is worthwhile reviewing what happened and the lessons learned and how these issues are still evolving.

After the 2008 / 2009 global food crisis, the Foresight Group published an influential report titled the ‘Future of Food and Farming’, which Quentin refers to in the interview. These events and the report has a significant impact and changed the way policy was developed around these issues, particularly in the United Kingdom.

Sir John Beddington and Charles Godfrey were key actors in the production of this report. They actively promoted the challenges that will be faced in feeding 9 billion people in 2050 in light of the food insecurity problems that the world had experienced.

The global food crisis was described as the as a “Perfect Storm”, and highlighted a range of risks that would need to be responded to in the coming decades as outlined in this series of infographics

Some context

Lam Dong, Vietnam and the Mekong region in general

Lam Dong Province in Vietnam had significant problems with water security at the end of 2015 related to an El Nino event. There was interest in how to make decisions in terms regarding what they needed to ensure water security and food production.

It was a demand-driven process. They wanted help with engaging decision-makers and the state using a participatory approach. This was coupled with the approach of identifying evidence-based causal risks and doing work to provide a set of options to move forward.

The scale of this is broader then Lam Dong province. The Mekong Delta is experiencing a range of issues linked to climate change. Climate is an issue for all these areas and it is a multiplier in terms of the risks.

Vietnam has a lot of rain and major river networks so it is surprising that you would be talking about water scarcity issues in a country like Vietnam. Aside from this, there is controversy about how dams will be built on the Mekong and the implications and consequences of that for food production, livelihoods and also the environment.

The Eastern Gangetic Plains in South Asia

Quentin also discussed in the interview how the Ganga, for example, is a major priority for the Modi government but change is not necessarily occurring in an integrated way

It is interesting to compare the narrative of the Modi government regarding cleaning the Ganga and a critical view of what it might take to achieve it.

Quentin suggests that if you want to be making a difference in a place like the Eastern Gangetic Plains you’ve got to be thinking in terms of decades if you want to address problems linked to the global water-food-energy nexus and adapting food systems to respond to these changes.

Groundwater aquifers in South Asia are facing a whole range of issues and hundreds of thousands of people are affected. There are burning issues related to water in agriculture and food production in the Eastern Gangetic Plains and North- Western Gangetic Plains. These are complex issues of groundwater depletion & water quality, which are severe given the size of the population and the importance of food production in that region. 

Is water pricing a solution to these issues?

India also had massive problems in the last 18 months where a whole range of solutions linked to the pricing of water that were considered which will require long term discussions about associated issues for a long period of time.

Water markets may not necessarily work in countries that don’t have the required institutional frameworks. If you have inequitable land distribution and power relationships you can see how water markets and water rights can have broader implications.

However, as Quentin discussed pricing of water is clearly one approach that needs to be considered. It cannot just be taken off the table in a crisis situation.

What about conservation agriculture?

CASI (Conservation Agriculture Based Sustainable Intensification) is being used as part of a Sustainable and Resilient Farming Systems Initiative (SRSFI) in the Gangetic Plains as a way of addressing the risks associated with food production in these areas.

Conservation agriculture can be used to address a multitude of issues related to the nexus, but it is a complex issue that needs participation and good information to support decisions. It is about improving the resilience of farming systems and how they can respond to the variety of shocks in particular climate change and the triggers and risks that come from that.

Participatory planning methods

In the Kini Interview, Quentin talked about a range of planning tools and processes that can be used to engage people with these issues and learn collaboratively about appropriate policy approaches to addressing them.

The Risk and Options Assessment for Decision-Making (ROAD) Process

Quentin’s work in Vietnam and the Eastern Gangetic Plains was conducted using the Risks and Options Assessment for Decision Making (ROAD) framework. This is a process to engage with multiple decision-makers and stakeholders with complex problems.

It is conducted differently in different areas. The process needs to adaptable and it was applied differently in different contexts. The background to this approach and more detail about the approach is outlined fairly comprehensively in this document.

Strategic Foresight Approaches

Quentin highlighted the work of Dr John Beddington and the strategic foresight process that as one solution that enables you to bring in different stakeholders to the process and to learn what is going on from their perspective.

Foresighting is about setting out a range of possibilities into the future. It is not predicting the future but more saying well if we make these assumptions or follow these processes. It is evidence-based. You look at alternatives and you get people to engage in those possibilities.

You show people things will get worse with business as usual approaches and then you engage to come up with the solutions and as we said with wicked problems the answer is not going to be straight forward. There might be competing views or different views but you have to go through that process to make sure you have some sort of headway.

Policy Dialogues

Quentin also referred to another approach called policy dialogues, which is a process that is useful to follow and when you have divides across different sectors and different stakeholders.

Resources and information networks

It was these issues that inspired Quentin to get to work networking and creating resources to help respond to these risks. Some of these and others referred to in the interview include:

  • A resource on resilience-based decision-making in the Philippines
  • The Food, Energy and Environment Network (FE2W), set up in 2004, and has engaged people in South Asia, Vietnam and elsewhere to come up with processes that help decision-makers in thinking about the risks and options in regards to these risks
  • In particular, this site has a Global Food and Energy System Platform that is free and allows people to experiment with their own assumptions about what might happen in the future in regard to food security and water usage and what might occur in the future
  • Zilient — A global resilience network set up by the Rockefeller Foundation to provide access to information, technology and engagement with others. It is a site designed to encourage cross learnings about this approach so that people do not have the reinvent wheels.
  • The Global Water Forum is also recommended by Quentin as a repository of really good information that has gone through some pretty careful filters so you can be sure that the information is evidence-based.
  • In the interview, a reference was also made to a podcast by Karen Hussey about the psychology of creating change

Related articles


This interview and related content was originally part of the Kini Interview Series. Kini is a retired brand of the AWP and IWCAN.

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