SOAS University of London


Sustainable systems for food and water

SOAS is profoundly engaged with contemporary issues and our research into the management of food and water has a direct impact on the lives of the people in the poorest societies, as well as mitigating the threats of environmental change in rapidly developing regions.

Malawian farmers await the distribution of subsidized seed and fertilizer
Malawian farmers await the distribution of subsidized seed and fertilizer through a countrywide programme supported by SOAS research. Photo: Andrew Dorward

With limited access to land, a rapidly growing population, and low levels of agricultural productivity, the people of Malawi face major food security and development challenges. As one means of addressing these challenges, the government of Malawi has for almost a decade run an innovative countrywide programme subsidizing smallholder farmers’ access to high-quality seed and fertilizer. This has been supported by the research of Andrew Dorward, Professor of Development Economics. Working with colleagues in Malawi, his analysis has informed the work of policy makers, funders and the people delivering the programme on the ground - including the Malawi Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, international agencies and national Civil Society Organisations. As well as leading interactions with the policy community, Professor Dorward has conducted reviews and developed new theoretical insights and conceptual frameworks to model the effects of the programme on rural livelihoods and on national development. The programme has made significant contributions to the livelihoods of large numbers of poor and food insecure people in Malawi and Professor Dorward continues to be involved in its development, to help maximise its effectiveness and efficiency.

a flood destroys a road in the outer suburb of Dunhuang, Gansu Province, China
After a heavy rain shower, a flood destroys a road in the outer suburb of Dunhuang, Gansu Province, China, despite the efforts of local officials to divert the torrent. Photo: Mei Wu, SOAS Photo Competition 2014

Agricultural transition and the transfer of resources from agriculture to industry has been a key factor underlying China’s exceptional economic growth. The country’s dramatic development has brought domestic population growth, rapid urbanisation, rising affluence and decreasing self-sufficiency in food production. The ways in which the nation’s agricultural policy makers respond to these challenges will have profound consequences for both China and its global trading partners. Research by Laixiang Sun, Professor of Chinese Business and Management, has contributed to the creation and development of the largest, most detailed predictive modelling tool for the Chinese agricultural sector, CHINAGRO II. By generating robust, quantified research findings for incorporation into policy dialogue, his research has transformed policy makers’ understanding of the future sustainability of Chinese agricultural development. Through his research professorship at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in particular, Professor Sun has influenced Chinese government policy at the highest levels.

Professor Sun and his colleagues undertook a series of modelling experiments to simulate the consequences of several major policy variants responding to the key concerns of Chinese agricultural development. These variants included trade liberalisation should it exceed agreed levels; economic growth and urbanization; technological advances on crop and livestock production; and expansion in the development of irrigation systems. Subsequently, the modelling was extended to include the effects of China’s agricultural transition on international trading partners, to take account of more nuanced social and household data and to generate quantified measures of environmental pressures including those resulting from intensified livestock and crop production and increased usage of fertilizers and pesticides. Modelling experiments can now simulate a new range of scenarios simultaneously taking account of China’s external trade environment, a more comprehensive collection of social factors, environmental pressures and ecological costs.

Private water provision through tankers in Tonk district, Rajasthan.
Private water provision through tankers in Tonk district, Rajasthan. SOAS expertise underpins the legal framework governing water in India. Photo: Philippe Cullet

Water is essential to society. The water industry constitutes a significant part of economic activity locally, nationally and internationally, and land and water management are crucial to environmental quality. Philippe Cullet, Professor of International and Environmental Law, worked closely with the Indian Government’s Planning Commission, in particular with its working group on water governance. While India has 17 percent of the world's population, it holds only 4 percent of the world's renewable water resource.  The vulnerability of India’s water supply has led to recent moves by the country’s government to formulate legislation on the use of this most precious resource. Cullet’s research helped to re-define the conceptual framework underpinning water law, such that it is now informed by human rights and sustainability concerns. This led to the drafting of a groundwater model bill, which proposes a radically new legal structure.

Water catchment model used for public engagement, New South Wales, Australia
Water catchment model used for public education and outreach with stakeholders by Tweed Shire Council, New South Wales, Australia

Typically, water resources are governed by top-down, hierarchical approaches at state level. In contrast, the research of Laurence Smith, Professor of Environmental Policy and Development, has demonstrated the success of approaches that privilege local stakeholder input and collaborative management at catchment level. His research has contributed to improved and reformed water management in the UK and internationally. His recommendations have been adopted by local authorities, NGOs, the UK Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and others, and promoted in the guidance issued by organisations including Defra, the Living with Environmental Change (LWEC) Partnership and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Professor Smith’s research focuses on catchment management, which takes account of the interdependence of human land and water uses with each other and with natural processes. ‘Catchment’ refers to the sub-basins of tributaries, or a whole river basin itself, as defined by the watersheds that divide surface drainage. Catchments rarely correspond to administrative boundaries and therefore their management requires coordination between multiple local stakeholders. Over abstraction, flood risk and water quality degradation are interdependent challenges for which local responsibilities for land use, farm and other businesses, planning and recreation frame key management options that must also be matched with higher level policy and regulation. 

The research investigated how to best protect water within landscapes that achieve the economic and social goals of the resident communities and businesses. The success and impacts of Professor Smith’s research projects has led to further funding to deepen and internationalise the agenda. Research funded by Defra and Ministry of Agriculture China addresses mitigation of diffuse water pollution in China. As part of the research, Professor Smith is collaborating with Chinese partners to explore the applicability of his research in three catchments and farming systems in China. A new collaboration on catchment management has also been established with partners in Espírito Santo state in Brazil. Key findings from the research to date are documented in a forthcoming book, Catchment and River Basin Management: Integrating Science and Governance, Edited by Laurence Smith, Keith Porter, Kevin Hiscock, Mary Jane Porter, David Benson, Routledge, 2015.