Black water and the future of farming

Meredith Alexander's picture
Meredith Alexander Head of Trade and Corporates

Last week, I learned that water comes in three colours: green, blue and black. I’m not talking about the amazing turquoise seas of the Caribbean nor the steely slate of the North Sea. All fresh water is classified by colour. Green water is the water that falls from the sky and flows across fields as run-off. Blue water is water in streams and rivers or ponds and lakes. Black water is found in underground reservoirs.

The different categories are important because they help us think about how water can be used. A lot of green water is wasted through evaporation or run-off, so farmers can use much more of it than they do now. That’s why rainwater harvesting is such a great way to grow more crops or bring clean water to a village.  

Most of the water we use is blue water. We take water from rivers and lakes to irrigate farms, run factories and keep our taps flowing. There will be a lot more competition in the coming decades. Cities in developing countries are getting thirstier as they grow bigger and richer. At the same time, the environmental reasons why we should leave more water in rivers are becoming clearer. Fish numbers are down and some species can no longer get to their breeding grounds because rivers are running dry.

Black water is the one that has people really worried though. Globally we are mining water: taking water out of underground reservoirs that took eons to collect there.

Why so much fuss about water? We need to double the amount of food we grow by 2050 to make sure everyone has enough to eat. That’s going to take a lot more water. Unfortunately, climate change will actually reduce the amount of green and blue water in many of the world’s poorest places. We should be much more careful about how we mine the black stuff - oil that causes climate change and water that would help us adapt.

Talking about biofuels

ActionAid Blogs's picture
ActionAid Blogs

So having spent most of my time with my head stuck in planning a 'virtual' biofuels campaign, it's refreshing for me to remove it and take stock of what's happening to kick off the campaign in the 'real' world. Particularly as the launch event is the big biofuels debate. I love a good, heated debate – in this case, the debate will be (non-bio)fuelled by input from:

- Ben Webster, Environment Editor at The Times(Chair)    

- Greg Archer, Director of the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership and        co-author of the Gallagher review       
- Professor Keith Smith from the University of Edinburgh   

-  Tim Rice, Biofuel Policy Officer for ActionAid UK          

A good mix of journalists, fuel experts, educators and campaigners. The final ingredient involves you: the audience. There will be plenty of opportunity to ask the panelists any questions you might have, there will be a wine reception (now you're talking) and I'm planning some social media action around it too (more on this later). So make sure you come!

The big biofuels debate is happening at the London Transport Museum on 16 February 2010 at 6.30pm. One word of advice – book now.  Places are free of charge, but we can only fit a certain amount of people into the one room. Email to reserve your seat.

Two days after the earthquake struck Haiti, the IMF and World Bank announced that each of them would rush $100 million in assistance. The difference between the two was that the World Bank would be giving grants, while the IMF’s money would be a loan under Haiti’s existing IMF program.

Debt and development activists reacted immediately: a new loan for Haiti, especially one with conditions, was grossly inappropriate given the devastation in Port-au-Prince. ActionAid prepared a factsheet listing the conditions of Haiti’s IMF program. We pointed out that the funds should come from the IMF’s new Rapid Credit Facility, which applies minimal or no conditions to its loans. Jubilee USA Network crafted a recommendation that the IMF guarantee that the debt would be paid by donors.

Our factsheet and Jubilee USA’s press release wound up in the hands of an editor at The Nation magazine, who posted a blog summarizing the absurdity of lending to Haiti with conditions. That inspired a Facebook group called “No Shock Doctrine for Haiti” – a reference to Naomi Klein’s book on how international financial institutions and wealthy governments exploit catastrophes to impose new economic rules on vulnerable countries. It quickly attracted over 18,000 members.

Last Wednesday the IMF put out a release, saying that it would find a way to make sure Haiti didn’t have to pay the $100 million. An IMF spokesman also declared that this loan would be free of any conditions. 

Neither of those pledges is yet absolutely official, but we have their word. A combination of policy, media, and internet activism has moved the IMF to change course in a matter of days. Now we just need to watch closely to make sure they deliver on their pledges.

Chewing the fat with the great and the good

Meredith Alexander's picture
Meredith Alexander Head of Trade and Corporates

The problem is clear: one billion people go hungry now and several trends will make it harder to ensure that everyone has enough to eat in the future. The problem may not be what you expect though: there is enough food produced to meet everyone’s needs. Poor people just can’t afford to buy it. The problem isn’t how much food we grow (production), but instead who gets to eat it (access). Access is likely to be the main problem in the future as well.

These are my conclusions after three days of discussion with academics, government officials, farmers, scientists and other experts. I spent most of last week at a conference on the future of food security at Wilton Park. There was a lot of food for thought.

On future trends, climate change will make growing food harder, and unfortunately the worst effects will be felt in the poorest countries. Linked to climate, there are real worries that there will be much less water for farming in the future.

Another trend is population growth. We will need to feed a human family of nine billion people by 2050. However the more important question is not how many of us there will be but rather how we eat. There are currently a billion hungry people and a billion overweight or obese people. A western style diet, heavy in meat and dairy, is also hard on the environment. Current consumption patterns aren’t working for lots of reasons.

After eleven formal sessions and lots of corridor conversation, the solutions to these problems were a lot less clear. We all know the basics: we need to invest more money in productive, environmentally-friendly farming. Small-holders in poor countries hold the key to feeding hungry people, not least because so many of them are hungry themselves.

I would add - though this wasn’t a consensus view - that women farmers also need a lot more attention. Women produce a huge percentage of the world’s food, but they get almost no support. Access to credit, ownership of land, advice, inputs like seeds and tools: women are always last in line. The underlying issue is how to pay for all this. Rich countries like the UK and poor country governments all need to be doing their share.

Global agreement on climate change is also essential. Again we all know what is needed, but how to achieve it? The same is true with changing people’s diets. How do we get people to eat food that is better for us and for the planet? Reducing food waste is another area where everyone is agreed what needs to happen, but not much progress is being made. All easy to say, but hard to achieve.

PS Whenever I attend meetings like this, I always tweet about the facts I find most interesting. You can follow me on twitter at

Power to the people

Chris Jordan's picture
Chris Jordan Tax Justice Campaign Manager

With the unofficial election campaign now in full swing, organisations around the country are busy looking for ways to make British politics more democratic, transparent and just. 

Here at ActionAid, we want to make sure that the people who created the global financial crisis pay their fair share to fix it. 

Stopping multinational companies from dodging the taxes they owe, together with a tiny new tax on the banks who created the current mess, would raise billions extra each year.  This would protect funding for vital services like hospitals and schools – both in the UK and in developing countries.  In the long term it would mean poor countries wouldn’t have to be depended on international aid to fund their development.

But make no mistake; powerful vested interests are lobbying hard against these solutions, desperate to maintain ‘business as usual’.  Improving lobbying transparency, so it’s clear who gets access to decision makers in parliament, would help ensure the deals that get done benefit everyone, not just the rich and powerful. 

That’s why we think that lobbying transparency should be a key focus for Power 2010's campaign to make sure democracy works for us all at this election.  You can vote for the proposal here - or (in true democratic style) any of the other ideas that people have come up with to clean up politics. 

Cranking up the pressure

Emma Hughes's picture
Emma Hughes Campaigns officer

Biofuels meals per gallon - cranking up the pressurePeople like Matilde Ngoene are already speaking out against biofuels and it is stories like hers that have inspired us to join the campaign.

One gallon of biofuels is made from enough corn or maize to provide 40 meals to a hungry child. At 40 meals per gallon, filling a 4x4 with biofuels uses enough food to feed a child for a year.

Starting TODAY we’ll be slamming the brakes on the production of industrial biofuels - but we need your help to do so. 


The meals per gallon gauge above shows how close we are to pushing the department for transport into accepting the need for ZERO MEALS PER GALLON. You can follow the gauge on this blog - watch the number of meals in our petrol fall as we put pressure on politicians! We have until June (when their disastrous plan plan will be submitted to the EU) to change their minds.

In just six months we need to make sure the pressure is critical. Help us get there by emailing Lord Adonis, the Secretary of State for Transport, and demanding zero meals per galllon.

If you’d like to order some action cards to give to your friends, email with your address and the number of cards you’d like.