ABIC Speaker Highlights: Howard Wheater

Posted on July 03, 2014

Back

To anyone concerned with food security, water security is of fundamental interest.

Major droughts that affect agricultural yields are regularly in the news, such as the Texas drought of 2012, or the California drought that is happening right now. Dr. Howard Wheater, the Director of the Global Institute for Water Security (GIWS) at the U of S, will be addressing the links between agriculture and water security at the Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference (ABIC 2014) in Saskatoon this fall (October 5-8).

The GIWS is an umbrella organization created in 2011 to foster research  in the area of water security by addressing six research themes: Climate Change and Water Security, Land-Water Management and Environmental Change, Sustainable Development of Natural Resources, Water and Health, Water and Wastewater Treatment Technologies, and Socio-hydrology.

“Water security is one of the major global challenges for the 21st century, alongside food security,” says Wheater. “Unsustainable use of water is widespread, and there is increasing competition for water resources on local, regional and international scales.”

“There are increasing pressures on water quality as well as quantity, and increasing populations at risk from the extremes of flood and drought, with large associated human and economic costs. These pressures are set to increase with a growing population and changing climate.”

Water security is an international issue, but we are also feeling the pressure in Canada. “Land and water are intimately connected, so agriculture not only depends on water, but affects water in many ways,” says Wheater.

Irrigation accounts for 80% of the global consumption of water. As the population increases, there will be growing tension between water slated for growing food and water required for other uses.

Agricultural management of land affects both the availability of water and the quality: agricultural run-off can have a direct effect on water pollution through excess nutrients in surface water and ground water.

GIWS approaches the study of water security and its effects on agriculture and biotechnology from three directions: They are developing interactive modeling tools for water resources in Saskatchewan; they are working to understand the impacts of nutrient pollution on major water bodies; and they are working to improve the understanding of climate variability and change.

GIWS researchers are working with stakeholders to investigate possible water futures, and associated risks and benefits of different economic development strategies, such as increased irrigation, and the impacts on other uses of water, such as hydropower and mining, as well as downstream effects.

They are also looking at agricultural management practices that reduce or mitigate environmental risk (known as Beneficial Management Practices), to measure impacts of agriculture on flood risk and water quality. Research teams also compare tree-ring data with current climate models to produce better estimates of what the future climate on the prairies may be.

GIWS is creating partnerships at all levels of production: local farmers on beneficial management practices, local communities at their various experimental sites, provincial and federal government agencies on new tools for water management, and the general public, through a recent theatre production that explores issues around water management, which was performed in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

“The Global Institute for Water Security aims to be a world leader in developing the trans-disciplinary research that is needed, linking science and engineering with social science and policy,” says Wheater. “How we develop and manage our water futures will ultimately depend on good science informing some hard choices in the management of land and water. We aim to develop the new science and link it to new tools to support decision-making, so we can better engage with policy-makers, stakeholders and the public.”

Our agricultural landscape is a complex system that interacts with the natural ecosystem and other resource interests in amazingly complicated ways. It is difficult to separate one from the other. “Improved efficiencies of production can have important environmental benefits. Land and water management have to be considered together.”

ABIC 2014: Global Leadership in a Changing World