Climate Changes Role in the Syrian Uprising

Happy 2016! This is a recent post that Adam put up on

By: Adam Hanbury-Brown

Three years before Syria’s uprising in 2011, the country experienced the worst drought in recorded history. This unprecedented dry weather caused dramatic crop failure and livestock mortality in regions heavily dependent on agriculture. The drought was so severe that one and a half million Syrian farmers were forced to relocate to the outskirts of large cities– constituting a wave of internally displaced people who would later experience further hardships and civil unrest.


Rebels aim their weapons during a training exercise outside Idlib

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) shows that the Syrian drought was most likely exacerbated by human-caused climate change, and that these extreme weather events will be two to three times more likely in the future. The authors of this paper, Colin P. Kelly of UC Santa Barbara, Shahrzad Mohtadi of Columbia University, and their colleagues, insightfully connect the dots between human-driven climate change, the recent drought, and the Syrian uprising in March, 2011. They tease apart complex climate factors to show that climate change likely had a strong impact on the drought. Most importantly, this study serves as a reminder that climate change doesn’t need to kill directly to cause suffering. It only needs to be the tightening vice around our preexisting vulnerabilities: geopolitical instability, unsustainable agricultural policies, and disparities in wealth.


Syrian refugee tent city

Vulnerable. That is best way to describe Syrian agriculture as the drought descended in 2006. Unsustainable agricultural policies under Hafez al-Assad (1971-2000) led to the depletion of Syrian groundwater prior to the drought. If managed more sustainably this might have ameliorated the water shortages. On top of that, the country had not yet fully recovered from the drought of the 1990s.

As the drought continued to displace farmers, internal refugees came to constitute twenty percent of Syria’s total urban population. Prices of wheat, rice, and feed doubled and this only served to exacerbate resource constraints in urban areas. Bashar al-Assad ignored the growing issues of overcrowding, poor infrastructure, unemployment, and crime- all factors that contributed to the unrest that led to the civil war.


Syrian sheep in a parched landscape

In order to understand climate change’s role in the drought, and subsequently the uprising, the authors analyzed long term trends in precipitation and temperature. Essentially, Syria is getting hotter and drier in accordance with the pattern predicted by increasing greenhouse gas. Seven of the eleven years between 1998 and 2009 received less rainfall than the 1901-2008 normal. The authors also point out that “three of the four most severe multi-year droughts have occurred in the last 25 years”– the era of most intense human impact on climate. Climate change is believed to be increasing sea-surface pressure in the eastern Mediterranean which is suppressing westerly winds that typically bring rain to Syria.  More alarming is that the authors cite a study which, “using a high-resolution model able to resolve the complex orography of the region concluded that the FC [Fertile Cresecent], as such, is likely to disappear by the end of the 21st century as a result of anthropogenic climate change.” It is deeply depressing that civilization will likely destroy its own birthplace.


Anasazi Village

If connecting the dots between the Syrian crisis and climate change still seems like a leap of faith, just return to Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse, (which incidentally was published in 2005– the year before the Syrian drought started). Diamond’s account of the fall of the Anasazi Empire in the southwest of the United States around 1120 AD is an uncannily similar story. The Anasazi were a people accustomed to living in a dry landscape. Their agricultural practices worked for a period of time, but just like the Syrians, they employed techniques that lowered groundwater levels-leaving them vulnerable to drought. Before the Anasazi groundwater issue came to a head, their civilization prospered, and a ruling elite developed in city centers. Goods and food flowed in to the centers from the agrarian periphery. In 1117 AD the Anasazi experienced a severe drought that is believed to have led to severe strain on the agricultural system. Around the same time, walls and other fortifications were erected around the city centers– marking a period of civil unrest and warfare. It is believed that the farmers, forced to abandon their land, no longer tolerated the ruling elite, and the civilization fell into disarray. Archaeologists found scalped skulls and unburied bodies in the grand houses of the ruling elite from this time.

The similarities between the Anasazi and the Syrian crisis are clear. What’s different about the Syrian crisis today is that the weather events are no longer just forces of nature. Humans are exacerbating the climatic pressures that we have seen play a role in civil unrest and warfare. The 2011 drought in Russia caused a spike in food prices- a major cause of the Egyptian uprising. Recent reporting on Russia’s current drought notes that “it’s among the worst ever recorded”– words that feel surprisingly familiar when it comes to weather events these days. Let’s hope history doesn’t repeat itself… but surely it will.
Citation of the Original Scientific Article:

Kelley, C. P., Mohtadi, S., Cane, M. A., Seager, R., & Kushnir, Y. (2015). Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , 112 (11 ), 3241–3246.

Other Citations, Russian drought “worst ever recorded” quote:
Photo Credit
Farmer feeling ground (featured image): Reuters,
Syrian Training: flikr, Freedom house
Refugees: flikr,  EC/ECHO
Refugee tents: flikr, Fabio Pena
Sheep: Green Prophet,
Anasazi: pixabay


Written By Lila Taheraly

I have always thought that diversity is key.

My parents come from two different continents.

I grew up watching the French National soccer team winning the World Cup in 1998 and the European Cup in 2000 with the slogan “Black, Blanc, Beur” referring to the three different skin colors of the players.

Diversity is everywhere.

Try to find two identical papayas at the farmers market.

Try to handwrite the same word exactly the same way.

Even twins have different moles or different eyebrow lines.

Diversity is life.


King’s Village farmers market 7/20/15, papayas, dragon fruits, mango

So when I read this article published in Nature Plants in April 2015, I felt happy. Diversity could also be great in agriculture. It could be promising and profitable!

What did these researchers do?

For one year, they grew five different grassland species on 124 small plots, half of which were exposed to drought during six weeks. The plots received either monocultures or polycultures and displayed different degrees of genetic diversity. The configuration allowed them to study separately the influence of species diversity and the influence of genetic diversity on biomass production and on temporal stability of the production.

Researchers harvested six times during the year, weighed their harvest and compared the results.

Their results proved that polycultures produced more than monocultures, especially when subject to drought, regardless of the number of genotypes per species present. With irrigation, plots with several species presented a superior yield of 200g/m² than plots with one species, i.e. 0.8tonne/acre. For plots under drought conditions, the difference was 3.2tonnes/acre.

Conversely, the temporal stability of production increased only with the number of genotypes present under both drought and non drought conditions, and was unaffected by the number of species.

How do they explain these results? With diversity, plants are more likely to produce their peak biomass at different dates. This process is called growth asynchrony. They will use water and nutrients at different moments. They will share the available resources more easily.

The article shows that species diversity and genetic diversity can play different roles for livestock optimization: species diversity impacts biomass production especially under drought conditions and genetic diversity impacts production stability. Both could be considered in agronomic systems to increase the productivity and resilience, especially in a context of rising hazardous environmental events.

We can notice that this is not the main direction that global agriculture followed for the last fifty years. The great news is that the tools that have been developed to improve monocultures for decades could help today to define and improve species mix which would increase yields and better resist hazardous conditions.

Maybe diversity could also be agriculture’s opportunity.

Understanding Global Agriculture in 15 Minutes

By Tom Schenk, Director of Business Development

Over the past ten years, scores of articles have been written about the merits of investing in farmland as well as the challenges of producing enough food to feed a population that is growing at the rate of about 80 million per year at the same time arable farmland is diminishing.  To put that in perspective, that is like producing the population of Germany – annually! has done an excellent job of producing world maps that show the relative size of each country in relation to various data sets they are analyzing.  The following five maps will be helpful in illustrating the challenges of feeding the world.

Before we begin, here’s the color-coded world map to use as a point of reference:


Now, here’s how the world should look if a country’s land mass was proportional to its population:


Now that we have a sense of how populations are distributed, let’s consider food.  The most basic measure of food is to considerer cereal grains because they are a major food staple and feed livestock and poultry.  Here’s what the world would look like if each nation’s boundaries were proportional to the cereal grain they produced:


Nevertheless, the above map doesn’t give us an idea if the cereal grains they produce are adequate enough to feed their populations.  So let’s look at net cereal grain imports:


So then, which countries are exporting all the grain these countries are importing?


Africa, the Middle East, SE Asia and China cannot feed themselves. Depending on which side of the fence you are on, it is now becoming easier to see the challenge – or the opportunity – for US agriculture. To understand the limiting factors in keeping the world fed, there’s no better place to begin than the soils.  Since about 6000 BC when tribes began to congregate along the Nile, man has been able to transition from being a hunter/gatherer to creating stationary communities that could produce more food than they needed and thus was the beginning of trade.  And it was also often one of the core causes of war throughout the history of civilization.

Not all soils are created equal, and good soils are certainly not always found where they are most needed.


The two best soils are Mollisols and Alfisols followed by Ultisols and Oxisols.  These last two soil types, even with considerable additional inputs of fertilizers and lime however, still cannot match the productivity of the first two soil types.

Examine where these four soil types are distributed around the globe.  You will see that these soil types are generally distributed along temperate growing zones and moderate elevations and rainfall. It is also interesting to note that most of the major world powers throughout history are located within these zones, but that’s a discussion for another day.

What these maps show is that the US has the single largest contiguous mass of the best soils in the world.  Though it accounts for only 6.7% of the world land mass, it contains 21% of the worlds Mollisols and 10% of the Alfisols.  The icing on the cake is that within these productive soil areas is a network of navigable waterways and ocean ports.

The Ukraine has great soils, but poor transportation infrastructure.  Canada has good soils, but also a shorter growing season and long transportation distances.  Brazil is blessed with an abundance of productive soils, but a coastal mountain range creates logistical nightmares of transporting grain from the interior via bumper-to-bumper trucks that clog the roads at harvest time.  They have no rivers near any productive agricultural land on which they can barge the grain or railroads they can ship it on.  You see, for every quarter percent of slope on a mountain grade, the weight a locomotive can pull is reduced by 50%!  Several miles of grain laden Brazilian trucks could easily fit on a single Mississippi River barge.  It is one thing to have transportation capabilities but another to have efficient (read cheap) transportation capabilities.

Two challenges worth mentioning in the US are water and farmers.  Almost every significant aquifer in the US is being depleted.  Advances in ag technology and irrigation efficiencies need to be more rapidly utilized. The proliferation of irrigation wells from Florida to Washington State has exceeded the recharge capacity of the aquifers. In the first 5 months in 2015, 1800 California wells have gone dry in the midst of a relentless drought.

Considering all the challenges of feeding the people on this earth, it is difficult to imagine a more noble profession.  However, there is an alarming shortage of young people going into farming.  The average age of an American farmer is 57 years old.  The Young Farmers Success Act bill was recently introduced to the US House of Representatives.  This bill would recognize farmers, ranchers, and farm employees to be eligible for Federal Service Loan Forgiveness program that is currently available to doctors, nurses, teachers, and government employees.  This program forgives loan balances after 10 years (120 payments).

On this last point, there is an important intangible many people in agriculture have pointed out to me.  In contrast to, say, Latin America where modern production farming is a phenomenon of the last 30 years, most multi-generation family farms in the US  have a legacy of understanding, conservation, and environmental care for the land that produces long-term efficiencies that few others in the world can match.

Grazing the Steaks

The imagery of cattle on 747, flying 2500 miles across the Pacific ocean took me by surprise –and wasn’t an idea I ever thought I would have to entertain until I began exploring the market potential for pongamia seed cake as a cattle protein supplement in Hawaii.

content cattle

Very content cattle (replacement heifers) on a intensive rotational grazing system at Ponoholo Ranch on the Big Island, with sweeping views of the coastline and Pacific Ocean

Through this pursuit, I discovered that approximately 75 percent of the cattle raised in Hawaii are shipped, by either plane or boat (via “cowtainers” or “floating feedyards”), for finishing and processing on the mainland. This practice began taking place after a large-scale processing plant closed down in 1990, causing the only large capacity feedlot to follow suit.  In another article, I explain that this practice not only decreases Hawaii’s market share of the industry from 30 percent to less than 10 percent, but also bears down on the islands’ food security and self-sufficiency — a looming issue for Hawaii. Nonetheless, it turns out, shipping cattle live to the mainland for finishing and processing is more economical for ranchers than purchasing feed to finish them here. A big issue is that the cost of feed (protein) is nearly double the price paid by ranchers on the mainland. Thus, with limited local feed options, in addition to veterinary care, branding, processing, and grading services, finishing and marketing the product on the mainland becomes more profitable.

cow calf operations

Cattle production chart depicts each phase of production and relative nutrients. Cow-Calf phase in yellow is what primarily takes place in Hawaii.

The scenario described is exactly why local feed solutions are currently in vogue in Hawaii.  In fact, a variety of industry stakeholders are interested in locally produced livestock feed, especially those derived from biofuel co-products, in effort to bolster Hawaii’s food-security and self-sufficiency, as well as the economic pay-off. With this considered, Pongamia is not only high-performing biofuel but also a potential solution to a eminent food security issue here in Hawaii.

Knowing all this, the seemingly manifest subject-matter of cattle supplementation in Hawaii quickly became a quandary through the market research process. First, Hawaii’s cattle inventory (including calves) is 135,000 head. With only one 950 head capacity feedlot in Maui, most of the weaned calves that are finished in Hawaii (a little over 8,000 head) are almost entirely forage-finished. These cattle are locally marketed as “grass-fed,” which doesn’t necessarily mean that can’t be given supplements but it is indeed a murky market to evaluate. However, most of Hawaii’s beef cattle industry consist of cow-calf operations, which takes place over a year before the finishing (feedlot) phase, as illustrated in the chart below. This is key as supplementation is the most critical during the cow-calf phase, given the mother cow’s high nutritional needs during pregnancy and lactation. With approximately 80,000 mother cows requiring 2-3 lbs of protein a day, this particular market could range from about 2,500 tons of pongamia potential, if only half of the mother cows received the supplement for 365 days, up to 8,000 tons of pongamia potential if all 80,000 mother cows receive the supplement for 365 days.

hawaii climateFor an even more critical look, a majority (about 80 percent) of the cow-calf operations are on the Big Island, where you’ll find one of the most productive (and jaw dropping picturesque) grazing lands in the U.S. Moreover, what you might find surprising, is that the Big Island is home to three of the top 25 largest cow-calf operations namely, Parker (#9) , Ponoholo (#21), and Kahua Ranch (#23). These three ranches (all neighbors – pictured below) make up a quarter of Hawaii’s protein supplement market. Parker ranch alone has approximately 10,000 mother cows over 130,000 acres, in 4-5 climate zones that can be observed from a pu’u (mound) from just up the ranch headquarters. These microclimates, along with the mountainous topography and multifarious winds are certainly factors these ranches take into consideration when choosing to supplement. Parker Ranch, for instance, finds it important to look at the season and time of year, as the nutrients in the forage is dependent on this.parker ranch Ponoholo, on the other hand, over 11,000 acres and three climate zones, prides itself on being a low-cost ranch, that is able to practice intensive rotational grazing which maximizes nutritional opportunities for the cattle, thereby reducing damage to the land through erosion and overgrazing. Given this, Ponoholo would likely forgo protein supplementation even in the event of drought, where they find it best to simply reduce their herd size. Right next to Ponoholo, Kahua Ranch would, however, consider using a protein supplement especially during drought to maintain cow-herd numbers. This illustrates the complexity and case-by-case nature of the cattle protein supplement market Hawaii. Nonetheless, even the ranches that rarely supplement their cattle, are still behind the idea using of pongamia seed cake as a protein supplement — especially in a drought situation, which one rancher explained could be the difference between life or death for a cattle herd.

Nitasha Baker

RISE/EEx- TerViva Business Development Fellow

Too legit to quit

The process of commercializing a new permanent crop such as a tree takes time to ‘prove’ economic viability. It is therefore no surprise that investors have shied away from the space. In fact much of the investment in new crop development over the past hundred years has been on annual crops like corn and soy. Nevertheless, permanent crops have the potential for much higher yields per acre and sustainable cultivation through the use of lower inputs (unless you are clearing forests to plant — I’m looking at you oil palm!).

Yes indeed validating yields of mature tree crops takes many years, so how do we get investors to pony up risk capital to develop novel permanent crops? Let’s leave aside the notion that investors (venture types especially) delude themselves and their LPs in to thinking that exits should require only 3 to 5 years (please look at all of your investments and see how many actually hit that mark).  Most successful businesses in agriculture, biotech and even technology take a decade or more. Even though permanent crops are more challenging they can be very profitable and scalable if done using innovative business models.

The key to large scale adoption of a ‘new’ tree crop isn’t just good yields but can also come from developing valuable uses for the crop.  For example, a Bloomberg article this morning highlighted the recent interest in the cacay tree that is found in Andes Kahai-Nut-OilMountains in Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and Colombia. This tree probably pre-dates humans and has been in use by people in the Amazon for centuries to treat skin irritations and burns, to make soaps and to feed livestock. A few years ago, a company called Kahai SAS showed that the oil from the tree has anti-aging properties and now folks are selling facial creams for $200 an ounce in beauty shops. Are there large scale plantations of cacay trees? None! I am sure it will take many years to hone in on consistent, high-yielding cultivars of the cacay tree but the highly valuable oil will make broader adoption of cacay plantations economically viable.  And to sweeten the deal, there are also a number of sustainability benefits for planting trees: CO2 capture, soil enhancement and curtailing deforestation (apparently cacay makes great firewood).  Kahai has already built a nursery and a processing plant to scale this crop.

As we discussed in previous posts, TerViva is commercializing a leguminous tree crop called pongamia that is native to India. Our vision is to create the world’s most scalable, cost-effective and environmentally friendly source of oil and protein. That grand vision is married to an innovative business model where we work with growers to convert their underused and distressed agriculture land into productive acreage by planting our proprietary pongamia cultivars. We offer more than just large and consistent yields per acre; we are also developing high valued uses of the oilseeds like anti-microbials, bio-pesticides and animal protein.  Permanent crops that can produce high valued, non-commoditized products make the bet for growers (and investors) more than just about yield.

Our bottom line is that if growers are convinced that a crop can be profitable (due to high yields and/or valuable products), they will grow it. Just look at the table below of 4 more established permanent crops and how many acres are planted every year.

Keep your eye on this space…

Sudhir is the CFO of TerViva, Inc

Dry Farming: A Sustainable Solution for California Farmers?

20142015 droughtAs California emerges from a “winter” with average temperatures 4.4°F warmer than the 20th century average and the lowest snowpack in 24 years drought is on the minds of many. While many of us will notice higher water bills, brown lawns, and asking for water when dining out the agriculture industry will continue to bear the brunt of the drought. In 2014 the agriculture industry suffered $2.2 billion in economic losses and 17,000 farmers lost their jobs. We can likely expect more of the same in 2015 as the drought continues, but what, if anything, can farmers do to minimize their losses?

soil-profileDry farming is a set of practices that aim to capitalize on using the water stored in the subsoil layer, rather than traditional irrigation, and was practiced long before modern irrigation existed. In areas with long dry seasons and seasonal rainfall, crops such as olives, grapes, figs, apricots, almonds and walnuts were historically farmed without irrigation. Dry farming was widely practiced in California up until the 1970’s, when drip irrigation became the industry standard. Today, dry farming is most notably used in the cultivation of wine grapes in California and abroad – in some regions of Europe it is illegal to irrigate because it is thought to dilute the quality of the wine.

The practice relies on tilling practices that create a “sponge-like environment” in the topsoil. Water from the subsoil layer then rises into the topsoil and a roller is passed over the topsoil sealing in the water and preventing it from escaping through evaporation. Drought resistant varieties are then planted and use the water in the soil to sustain their growth throughout the dry season. The precise timing of the planting and tilling is essential for proper moisture retention.

The potential for dry farming is limited by climate and soil type. A sandy soil will never be suitable for dry farming because any water will quickly drain away. At least 12 inches of rain are needed for proper moisture in soils, excluding much of the Southern portion of the Central Valley. However, in areas that have the appropriate soils and climate, it could prove to be a useful tool for farmers looking to cut costs or make use of land that seemed unsuitable in the current drought.

The lack of irrigation requires less dense planting, because only so much water is available for each plant, and leads to significantly decreased yields, sometimes as little as one-tenth of that of irrigated fields. To some extent, the savings of not using irrigation counteracts the loss in revenue from reduced yields. Irrigation infrastructure can be very expensive to purchase and install, and the cost to pump groundwater will continue to rise as we deplete our reserves. One case study from a vineyard in Sonoma County, CA found that a minimum of 16,000 gallons/acre feet was saved compared to growers who lightly irrigate. Less irrigation can also results in less weeds, reducing the need for expensive herbicides and pest management.

Dry farmed Early Girl tomatoes at Live Earth
Farms in Watsonville, CA.

In addition to savings on irrigation, some dry-farmed fruits and vegetables have created a cult-like following for their improved flavor. The improved flavor comes from reduced water content and higher concentrations of sugar and flavor compounds. In recent years, dry-farmed tomatoes have been in high demand from chefs and wholesalers around the country and can provide high economic returns despite low yields.

The economics of dry farmed products are far from certain, however. Though fruit coming from dry farmed orchards and farms tends to be more flavorful and better storing, the commercial fruit industry has invested a substantial amount of time and money in developing standards for large fruit, dependent on the application of irrigation, fertilizers and chemicals. Dry farming is not going to be the answer for large-scale agri-businesses – the yields are too low and crops like strawberries, rice, or lettuce would not survive without irrigation. For smaller growers and unemployed farmhands, however, dry farming could provide some relief in the current agricultural landscape of drought-stricken California.

Water Innovation for the 21st Century

This week’s blog describes three examples of water innovations.  In the first case an entrepreneur fights city hall to provide a source of clean water for residents of Mexico City. In the second case, a state government entity agrees to pay a publicly traded commercial entity to store water on private land in Florida. In the third case, an engineer calls for a water revolution. 

Retrofitting homes for rain water catchment in Mexico City

Mexico City faces a severe water crisis. The Valley of Mexico aquifer is being overexploited to provide water to its 21 million residents.  As a result, the city is sinking about 1 meter every 10 years.  And yet, citizens of Mexico City still lack sufficient drinking water. Mexico City’s water pipes are old and cracked, springing thousands of leaks that the city government cannot keep repaired. It is estimated that 40% of the available water is lost through these leaks. Some 36% of households are without access to a constant daily flow from their faucets. This lack of drinking water is posing a major health risk, and Mexicans try to compensate by having the highest consumption per capita of bottled water in the world. Without investing billions of dollars in infrastructure to replace the entire system, the government will continue to fail to deliver safe drinking water to its citizens. In crisis mode, and in large part to reduce the probability of political unrest, city officials are delivering water by truck at great cost (PBS Newshour, PBS NOVA).

RainWater_Harvesting_Isla_Urbana_System_ComponentsEnrique Lomnitz, an engineer from MIT with an industrial design degree, has developed a low cost rain water harvesting system and established Isla Urbana to build such systems and educate local residents on harvesting and using rain water. His system, at a cost of $1000, when applied to a typical roof and under average annual rainfall, can provide enough water for two families per year. Mr. Lomnitz estimates that widespread installation of such systems could provide for 30% of Mexico City’s water needs. To date only 1500 rain harvest systems have been installed. The challenge that Mr. Lomnitz and Isla Urbana face in building widespread adoption for this innovative solution is political, governmental inertia, rather than technical. (PBS News Hour).

Water storage and release on private land in Florida

In Florida, water districts are challenged by the unequal and intermittent flow of fresh water into lakes, estuaries, and ultimately the Everglades following heavy rainfall. This challenge impacts agriculture, the environment, the economy of Florida, and the quality of life for its residents.

Under a recent agreement between Florida’s oldest and largest water alico logomanagement district (the South Florida Water Management District), and a major agribusiness with the largest citrus production in the US (Alico, Inc.), more than 34 billion gallons of water will be stored on approximately 35,000 acres of ranch land. This agreement is a first under a Dispersed Water Management program and makes use of private properties to store water and manage its release to avoid overwhelming Lake Okeechobee and coastal estuaries during heavy rain seasons. Property owners gain financially in return for providing a critical water management option.

Water 4.0 for Californiawater 4.0 yale books

“We require a fundamental change in our relationship with water”, says David Sedlak, UC Berkeley professor of civil engineering, co-director of the Berkeley Water Center and author of the recent book Water 4.0: the Past, Present, and future of the World’s Most Vital Resource (Yale University Press, 2014). Over the centuries there was Water 1.0, when Rome built aqueducts and disposed of waste. Water 2.0 saw 19th century Europeans chlorinate and filter drinking water; followed by our present system, Water 3.0, that treats sewage as well. But according to Sedlak, now it’s time to update to Water 4.0.

“If the system remains hidden underground and people just turn on the faucet and don’t think about all the effort that goes into getting the water to them, we can’t have an intelligent discussion about water supply”, Sedlak says (PRI). However, according to Sedlak’s optimistic view, the very crises we face, such as the severe drought that California faces, may just result in sufficient collective will to accomplish a major shift in our relationship with water.  In a recent interview (NPR) Sedlak expressed his optimism that rapid advances in electronics, materials science, and biotechnology will help us solve current challenges.

The first principal of Water 4.0 involves continuing to adopt new technologies for indoor plumbing and elsewhere in the entire water system, technologies that allow greater water conservation. Technology solutions include switching to top-loading washing machines instead of front-loading washing machines and installing more efficient toilets. The modern flush toilet uses 1.5 gallons per flush, whereas vacuum toilets (think airplane toilets) can reduce that flush to 10% of that amount.

The second principal of Water 4.0 refocuses urban residents on local solutions that capture and recycle water. Capturing urban storm water run-off (USG), using seawater desalination plants, and sustaining urban aquifers are all ways to move water management to a local level. While building a reservoir in the middle of a city is nearly impossible, many cities already have urban aquifers underneath them that can store water (NPR). Other local solutions include recycling more water either by returning grey water (water from bathroom sinks, showers, tubs, and washing machines) for use in flushing toilets ( or by recycling sewage after it’s been treated and returning the clean water back into the water supply.

According to a 2014 report by the Pacific Institute and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), if Californians adopt aggressive conservation, water reuse, and rainwater capture practices, the state could save up to 17.3 million cubic meters of water, more than the amount of water used in all of California’s cities in a single year.

Lessons from Australia’s response to millennial drought

Sedlak and others point to Australia’s response to their millennial drought that ended in 2009 as an experience from which Californians can draw important insights. A summary of Australian responses can be found in a presentation at the Public Policy Institute of California on January 12, 2015 by Jane Doolan, fellow of natural resources governance and member of Australia’s National Water Commission.

In brief, the Australian government responded to their country’s extreme drought conditions with policy initiatives that changed their water entitlement system, supported water markets, and provided water for the environment to head off catastrophic impacts to sensitive species and ecosystems. Economic, social, environmental outcomes were considered together. The new paradigm became ‘This is the future”, as opposed to “We need to get through this”.   Australia succeeded in changing its water system in a way that different stakeholders saw as fair and as spreading the pain all around equitably and thus the changes had broad public support.  Specifically they:

  • Improved the water grid at the highest level to enable the movement of water.
  • Adopted efficiency in all sectors:urban households, industry, and rural irrigation systems.
  • Improved infrastructure and adopted smart river management to enable water movement.
  • Gave tools to entitlement-holders to allow them to manage their own risk.
  • Made the water market able to operate under extreme circumstances.
  • Augmented supplies when required.
  • Shifted to an environmental paradigm that was practical, pragmatic, and easily understood.


The innovations described above are examples of how countries, states, cities, water management districts and individuals are going beyond incremental improvements to their water management to solve critical water problems.