10 May 2012

Water Chat -- Don Gaydon

Don Gaydon is from Brisbane, Australia, but he just finished his PhD at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

I had a chat with Don back in March on his research on how Australian farmers (and rice farmers in particular) are adapting to reduced water availability. Among other things we discussed in our 70 minute talk [25 MB MP3] were:
  • the move from land-limited to water-limited agriculture
  • the similarities of agriculture in Australia, Spain, California and other places with highly variable water flows.*
  • the tradeoffs between spreading a little water on a lot of land, or a lot of water on a little land -- read this paper [PDF]
  • trapping and using local precipitation -- watch this video
  • whether farmers target yield or profit per hectare (usually yield -- whoops!)
  • this proposition: "without the participatory involvement of farmers, modelling studies on adaptation will be academic rather than practical" -- read more about farmers' tacit knowledge but also note that Don's experience (he's 44) greatly influenced the "reality" of his academic work, which is more likely to help real people -- all else equal -- than the work of a 26 year-old who's grasp of reality has not been tested by life outside the ivory tower.
You can download his entire dissertation [PDF].

At his defense, one examiner raised an interesting question: "If water is scarce, then why does Australia export 85 percent of its agricultural production." That's a good question (and relevant to many countries). I have a few responses:
  • Farmers with the property right to water can use it as they wish. If "the nation" wants to leave that water in the environment (we're not talking about eating that food domestically!), then they should be paid for the water.
  • Sustainable water use is more important than the amount of "virtual water" that's exported. Australian rice farmers who use flood water for crops are more sustainable than Indian (or California) farmers mining groundwater for crops.
  • Those exports lower food prices in other parts of the world, improving lives for consumers at the same time as they deliver profits to farmers.
Bottom Line: Don's work is going to help all of us -- farmers, environmentalists, and citizens -- improve our water management.
* Don says: "In his diaries, early Australian explorer Charles Sturt explored the Murray-Darling basin in an extremely wet season. He was continually confounded by vast areas of marshland and flooded wetlands, which he presumed initially must lead to an inland sea (!). He didn't know that he was witnessing floods in a place that had droughts that were just as dramatic. These vast floodplains are what we now call The Riverina - the irrigated cropping region which has historically produced a large part of Australia's agricultural profit." For a perspective on the same type of climate BUT INCLUDING a warning on water variation, read JW Powell's fantastic 1879 Report on the Arid Lands