Don’t Panic. The Sky Is Not Falling. But Stop Wasting Water says Expert

Beverly Dianne McIntyre says the answer to the planet’s climate problems won’t be found focusing on doom and gloom but on how we all can all make a difference. She wants to be part of that difference. Dr. McIntyre, a consultant with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and an expert for its Soil and Water Platform, says, “Yes, it might seem like the sky is falling sometimes, but there are effective measures that can be taken.” She pointed to technical innovations to improve governance, as well as the more effective usage of water in agriculture. 

“It is even more imperative that we do so given climate variation,” she adds. “We waste too much water.”

McIntyre is also on the committee of guardians and advisors that support the Securing Water for Food (SWFF) program, a collection of innovators around the world striving for more food with less water. “I am concerned about food security because of the increased variability in frequency and amounts of rainfall and higher air temperatures,” she says. “This will mean some areas of the world may have trouble sustaining traditional crops.” 

“Others might find that their land might be unable to produce any crops at all due to increased salinity at sea levels and higher temperatures that prevent crops from flowering,” she adds. 

Dr. McIntyre believes putting in place improved resource management practices can go a long way toward increasing the ability of farmers everywhere to adapt to a rapidly changing planet. “But,” she quickly adds during an interview while on an IFC assignment in India, “most critically we must use water more efficiently and effectively everywhere, from industry to agricultural fields to households.  

“All the dire declarations about food insecurity will not disappear if we get a handle on water waste, but reducing waste is a good place to start. Even in countries of water scarcity, it tends to be wasted.”

“All the dire declarations about food insecurity will not disappear if we get a handle on water waste, but reducing waste is a good place to start. Even in countries of water scarcity, it tends to be wasted.”

USAID’s Dr. Ku McMahan, the team lead on the SWFF program, cites an alarming projection that the world’s population will top nine billion by 2050 and that there will only be sufficient useable [predictably available] water of sufficient quality year-round for a third of its inhabitants. This was a compelling reason for USAID to develop the SWFF program six years ago, a competition where worldwide innovators submitted proposals aimed at limiting water usage and finding unique ways to support farmers in developing countries. If chosen, they received grant money and technical support, but they must show results each year to remain in the program. 

Dr. McIntyre doesn’t scoff at the more gloomy projections regarding water scarcity. However, she gives them context. “By using water more efficiently and putting in place better resource management practices, we can go a long way toward meeting the challenge of water scarcity,” she says. 

The amount of water on the planet now is the same as it was at the beginning of time, but the quality has declined, and the quantity and predictability of precipitation are increasingly variable, she adds.

Dr. McIntyre says the quality and locally available quantity of water will continue to decline unless we become better stewards: decreasing run-off and pollutants, and treating wastewater more effectively. She says that the term “saving water” should be understood in context because the planet’s water is simply being redistributed to other purposes and other geographic regions. The problem arises in its inequitable distribution, particularly in areas more drastically affected by increased temperatures and salinity issues. 

McIntyre was named several years ago to the Innovation Investment Advisory Committee for the SWFF program, a group that reviews grant applications. At that time, she was with the International Water Management Institute.

An Alabama native who lives in Washington, DC, but frequently travels to developing countries for her work, she says being on the SWFF review committee was rewarding, both working with innovators as well as the diverse experts on the committee.

The innovator applications came from around the world, from Bangladesh and India to Cambodia and Vietnam, to Peru and South Africa and Nepal. And all dealt with markets that have water and weather issues. Some of the innovations concerned unique irrigation methods, others more accurate tools for predicting rain and drought, and still others with producing seeds sufficiently hardy to withstand salinity in the soil. In reviewing possible applicants, McIntyre says the committee judges them from the outset as to whether their facts and numbers square with the innovations’ promises. “We want to know, do the numbers really add up.”

It was a rigorous process of judging hundreds of applications and then paring that down to the several dozen, which have the best chance of being scalable, environmentally sound, and sustainable for the long term. “Good innovators are not necessarily good business people,” says McIntyre, adding that the committee also had financial and investment experts who were vital to the process. 

One aspect of SWFF that McIntyre was most proud of was that the program focused on social equity and gender equality. “Dr. McMahan wanted to make sure the innovations were capable of actually making a difference in the lives of small-scale farmers,” she says. 

McIntyre started out on her career journey as a science and math teacher in the Peace Corps in northeast Kenya, where there happened to be a shortage of water. “We had to dig wells by hand,” she says. “I came back to the states and wanted to be a civil engineer and work on wastewater. This led to soil science and the study of how to use water most effectively and efficiently in agriculture.” 

One of the take-home messages from her SWFF experience is that the best innovators in the program tend to come from savvy, energetic people living in those regions. “Though I have lived and worked in developing countries, I am always in a protected bubble with economic resources. I will never know what it is really like to pay school fees, doctors, buy seeds and fertilizer, and feed my family with money from the crops I grow,” she says.

McIntyre applauds the transitioning of the SWFF program from one based on sustainability and scalability to one that seeks innovations that can also attract private investors, such as in the recently announced Water & Energy for Food (WE4F) program. 

“This will lead to motivating all innovators to be even more transparent about how they’ve calculated costs and benefits because the private sector will not put money into projects based simply on hopes—they will want a return on their investment,” she says.



USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), and the Governments of The Netherlands and South Africa invested $34 million in Securing Water for Food (SWFF) to promote science and technology solutions that enable the production of more food with less water and/or make more water available for food production, processing, and distribution.

This story was developed through the SWFF Social Impact Storytelling Initiative which was established to document innovator journeys and social impact as they work to improve the way water is being used for agriculture. #socialimpact #innovation #agriculture #water