Lenton the Founding Director of Daugherty Water for Food Institute

By Brooke Talbott

Civil engineer sets forth vision for "urgent" need for institute

As the world population increases, the challenge will be to resolve the competing domestic, industrial and agricultural demands on water, according to the founding director of the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute, Roberto Lenton.

The global situation is urgent because already there are rapidly-increasing demands on limited water resources. The available water is not sufficient to meet the multiple, competing demands, including agriculture, environment, industry and the water required by growing urban areas for drinking and for sanitation.

Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of water withdrawals globally and will be the first area addressed by researchers in the Daugherty Water for Food Institute, Lenton said.

At the same time, "thirsty cities" are expanding as people move away from rural areas and as a result, water resources are dwindling in many areas of the world, he said.

The goal of the University of Nebraska's Daugherty Water for Food Institute (DWFI) is to find ways to meet the growing demand for food without increasing the amount of water consumed.

The Daugherty Water for Food Institute was founded with a $50 million gift from the Robert B. Daugherty Foundation. Robert Daugherty founded Valley Manufacturing in 1946 in Valley, Nebraska, now known as the center pivot irrigation giant Valmont Industries.

Lenton said the DWFI is an institute specifically focused on improving water use in food production systems in Nebraska and around the world. The ambition, he said, is that the institute be the place people around the world will turn to for expertise on issues related to water and food.

"A big part of the challenge is how to ensure that agriculture, which is the largest consumer of water, is able to manage that water more effectively so that it gets 'more crop per drop,'" Lenton said. The challenge is to meet the growing demand for food without increasing the amount of water used to produce it.

Lenton is a civil engineer and holds a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He brings to the DWFI his experience in India with the Ford Foundation; in Sri Lanka with the International Water Management Institute; with the United Nations Development Program, where he headed the environmental division; and with the World Bank's inspection panel. He joined the University of Nebraska in February 2012 as the founding director of the new institute. He decided to accept the offer to come to Nebraska because, he said, "the University of Nebraska had the imagination and vision to conceive of setting up an institute dealing with these issues of water and food." Nebraska has a tradition of giving significant importance to good management of agricultural water, whether it is rain-fed or irrigated from groundwater or surface water, he added. "And I also had a strong sense that the land-grant university system is really the best setting for research in water management issues."

"The vision is a very ambitious one," he said, and builds on the large body of experience that exists within the university and throughout the state. The vision for the DWFI covers both the natural and the social sciences, he said, including sociology, anthropology and political science. Sometimes political issues arise at very micro-levels, he added. The politics of water is a fact of life, he added.

"No single perspective is going to solve this problem," Lenton said, so it is important to form teams that represent a variety of perspectives. Along with researchers, the farming community and the agencies that develop water management policies also must be involved.

A collaborative effort

Salt creek waterwayLenton said he is pursuing water and food-related partnerships and collaborations across all the campuses and departments in the University of Nebraska system, focusing on how to make better use of water in food production systems.

"I like to see partnerships at least at three levels," Lenton said. The first level is within the university, with expert faculty and researchers. The second is within Nebraska- state government, natural resources districts (NRDs) and the farming community. The third is global, with research partnerships with countries like Brazil, China and India, who also are leaders in agricultural production.

The DWFI already has signed a memorandum of agreement with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Lenton said, and has a promising partnership with the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education in the Netherlands. In June 2012, UNL and the University of Sao Paulo (USP) in Piricicaba, Brazil became partners in a new program that will allow research and exchange opportunities for faculty and students from both institutions.

Lenton said that he hoped to forge partnerships with institutes that deal with global issues of water and food, focusing on the poorest countries of the world where water management issues were the most critical in terms of poverty and hunger. He said it is important to recognize that some of the richer agricultural countries have a long tradition of good water management, but they too face many challenges in their efforts to balance competing demands for limited amounts of water. That is just one example of the individuality of the world's water challenges.

"You have to work very, very specifically in local context," he said. The problems and the challenges may be similar, but the solutions are context-specific.

"There may be a temptation to think that there can be global solutions- that you can have cookie-cutter solutions- in water management, that's simply not the case," Lenton said.

Spreading knowledge, saving water

In Nebraska, Lenton said, it's clear that the university's research has increased farmers' productivity and income. The Daugherty Water for Food Institute, he said, has the potential to take that implementation of research one notch further by spreading the knowledge and experience in Nebraska to the world. The NRD experience in Nebraska would be valuable in other countries, Lenton said.

"We've got such a huge starting point because of the large number of faculty, scientists and researchers- and the advantage of being a land-grant institution," Lenton said. He added that the land-grant university system is the best setting for research in water management issues because of the strong connection between research, practice and policy.

"I think if you're going to have a center of this sort, you have to have it located in a place where these issues are vital," Lenton said, "where they resonate with people, where you can have a strong interest among all citizens. And you certainly find it here."


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