Researcher's Efforts Lead to Better Water Sharing, Food Security in Nile River Basin
Officials from seven countries in the Nile River Basin gathered in Ethiopia in October for a workshop on water management and food security led by CEE Associate Professor Ximing Cai.
Ximing Cai has devoted his career to an interdisciplinary approach to water resources management, the idea that knowledge from multiple disciplines is essential in finding effective solutions to real-world problems. This summer the CEE associate professor and Ven Te Chow Faculty Scholar in Water Resources had a unique opportunity to apply that approach to a challenge in one of the world’s most critically important river basins, the Nile River Basin.
Invited by the World Bank and the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), a regional development agency sponsored by the World Bank and the United Nations, Cai planned and led two workshops in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in June and October, gathering stakeholders from seven countries to discuss the interconnected problems of water management and food security that plague the sub-Saharan region. The ultimate goal of NBI is to acquire computer modeling tools, software and training materials to support a comprehensive, basin-wide plan for water allocation and agricultural development in the region. They chose Cai to lead the effort to define the problem in technical terms because of his expertise and experience in modeling complex river basin problems with input from multiple disciplines.
"We cannot solve real-world water resources problems with knowledge from any single discipline alone," Cai says. "To solve real-world problems, we need multidisciplinary information from different fields—hydrology, economics, institutional science, etc."
The one-week June workshop had two sessions, one devoted to training participants to use basic water and agricultural models to support their decisions about water use and allocation. The other session focused on consulting with stakeholders about both national and regional problems in water management and food production, demand and trade, Cai says. Attendees included about 40 people from seven countries, including high-level government officials, university professors, and officials from non-governmental and regional agencies. The interdisciplinary, systems approach was new to them, but they were enthusiastic about it, devoting 10-hour days to hands-on participation in the workshop, Cai says. The three-day October workshop discussed the project’s technical plan and solicited feedback from stakeholders, which is being used to refine the plan. The result will be a detailed document outlining the problem and defining the modeling tools necessary to address it.
In addition to presentations by Cai and technicians such as software engineers, the workshops presented a rare opportunity for the technical professionals to engage in a dialogue with stakeholders, a critical procedure in developing realistic models, Cai says.
"We want to know what they really need, what they’re really interested in, and we also want to show them how and to what extent we can solve the problems," he says. "They need information on how to share the water and how to adopt some technology investment to maximize the benefit for the whole region."
Successful implementation of the plan will lead to better water management and food security in one of the world’s most impoverished regions, Cai says. It will also serve as an example of the systems approach to international river basin management. Cai plans to develop case studies for his classes based on the project that relate to interdisciplinary studies and shared vision modeling between modelers and stakeholders, and he also hopes the connections he made will pave the way for students who want to work in Africa.
"This is a very, very unique experience in my research career," Cai says. "The Nile River Basin is one of the most important basins for poverty reduction in the world, so I really hoped I could take this chance to promote the application of [interdisciplinary] research in the real world."
Participants in the workshops included Professor Alex Winter-Nelson and Ph.D. candidate Rafael Garduno-Rivera from the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at U of I, who contributed to the conceptual design of food economic models; and CEE at Illinois Professor Benito Mariñas and Environmental Engineering Professor Kofi Bota from Clark Atlanta University, both of whom attended the October workshop.