IEA Training Manual - Module 5

6.1.3 What is policy analysis?

With a basic understanding of policies and policy instruments, what is policy analysis? It can be considered any systematic analysis of any and all components of the policy process as illustrated (Figure 24) (Najam 2005). The policy process includes the formal activities of policy formulation and implementation of the policy life cycle. Najam describes the policy process as consisting of three primary components: policy choice, policy implementation and policy assessment (Najam 1995). With policy choice, government and society are formulating the goal that should be achieved and the types of policy instruments that could best achieve the goal. Following implementation of these instruments, assessment links policy choice to implementation and asks if the original goal is being achieved, and if not, why not. All three gears of the policy process need to move in order for policy to work (Figure 23).

Figure 23: Gears of the policy
process (from Najam 2005)

Analysis of government policies is an inexact process wrought with uncertainties. It is, however, an essential segment of social learning and adaptation that brings attention to the complex relationship between decision making and environmental outcomes. Policy analysis is rarely exhaustive and in most cases, cannot be prescriptive. It provides baseline information, points out major linkages between decisions and environmental outcomes, and provides a starting point for consideration of more sustainable policy options.
In order to slow, stop and ultimately reverse environmental degradation, we need to understand not only what is directly causing that degradation, but also how human society is contributing through its policies and decisions. Policies, formal or informal create the “rules of the game,” and they represent leverage points influential in system direction. But because policies are deeply ingrained, they often are difficult to change unless their relationship to the interests of social groups is well understood.

Analysing the linkages between observed environmental chang and society’s policies is one of the most important yet most challenging aspects of IEA. It is one thing to recognize a linkage (e.g., between groundwater depletion and water withdrawal for irrigation). In order to go to the root of the problem, one must look not only at potential physical causes, but also understand public policy decisions and the web of related interests that lay in the background (e.g., economic incentives for water pumping, strategic food self-sufficiency policies). Even deeper, one needs to develop a clear picture of how political and economic interests motivate various actors from government to agribusinesses to farmers, getting them involved in formulating and accepting a particular policy in contrast to perpetuating unsustainable forms of behaviour.

It also is important to understand that societal responses may mitigate an environmental problem leading to improving the state of the environment, or could be in themselves drivers for worsening the same problem or creating new ones. For example, subsidizing energy prices could be increase energy accessibility for the poor. However, low energy prices could send market signals that result in a growing energy demand, that results in an increase in harmful air emissions. 

Case Study

Saudi Arabia’s food self sufficiency policy and impact on water resources


Environmental issue of concern

Water withdrawal

In 1992, total water withdrawal was estimated at 17 km3, of which 90 per cent was for agricultural purposes. That was up nearly five per cent over the 16.3 km3 recorded in 1990. Desalinated water is used for municipal not agricultural purposes because it is too saline for irrigation even after treatment. Treated wastewater is used to irrigate non-edible crops, for landscape irrigation and for industrial cooling. However, most of the water used (> 13.5 km3) comes from non-renewable, deep aquifers. At the 1990 rate of abstraction, it is estimated that the usable reserves will last for no more than 25–30 years. The quality of the abstracted water is likely to deteriorate with time because of the flow of low quality water in a given aquifer towards the core of the depression at the point of use. In 1988, there were
4 667 multi-purpose government wells, and 44 080 multipurpose private wells.

Irrigation and drainage development

The most recent soil surveys (1989) and classifications put the area of land suitable for irrigated agriculture at about 10 million ha. However, the limiting factor is water. Depletion of non-renewable “fossil” water already is taking place at a very high rate.

All agriculture is irrigated, and in 1992 the area under water managment was estimated at about 1.6 million ha, all equipped for full/partial control irrigation. Surface irrigation is practiced on the old agricultural lands, cultivated since before 1975, which represent about 34 per cent of the irrigated area. Sprinkler irrigation is practiced on about 64 per cent of the irrigated areas. The central pivot sprinkler system covers practically all the lands cropped with cereals. Normally, pumped groundwater from one deep well supplies one or two central pivots. The irrigation application efficiency of this method is estimated at between 70 and 85 per cent. Vegetables and fruit trees in general are irrigated by drip and bubbler methods respectively. Groundwater is used on almost 96 per cent of the irrigated area, treated wastewater on one per cent.

In 1992, 428 000 ha were estimated to be cultivated by 1 070 large farms, with an area of more than 200 ha each. The total area of medium farms (5–200 ha) was 730 000 ha, comprising 7 300 farms. Small farms (< 5 ha) covered 450 000 ha, comprising 180 000 farms.

The average cost for irrigation development is about US$251/ha for microirrigation, sprinkler irrigation and surface irrigation systems respectively. Water is free of charge.
The cropped area more than tripled between 1977 and 1992. In general, there is only one cropping season. The major irrigated crop is wheat. In 1988, it consumed almost 40 per cent of irrigation water, and covered almost 62 per cent of the irrigated area. Other major crops are fodder, other cereals (particularly sorghum and barley), fruit trees and vegetables. Since 1988, self sufficiency in wheat has been reached, and part of the production is being exported. In 1992, wheat production was almost 4.1 million tonnes, while national demand was only about 1.2 million tonnes. Vegetables, fruits and dates and fodder are also exported.

Water resources management policies

In 1981, there began a change in agricultural cropping patterns based on the adoption of new technologies, exercising extensive and effective agricultural extension, using improved seed varieties with high productivity and providing advanced plant protection services in line with modern agricultural methods.

The government’s involvement in the agricultural sector has been extensive. During the 1980s, food self-sufficiency, particularly in wheat and dairy products, became a major priority. With the support of heavy subsidies, the added value in agriculture increased by more than 70 per cent from 1985–91. Wheat production was even sufficient to enable Saudi Arabia to become the world’s sixth largest wheat exporter. Despite its success, this policy is a threat to the country’s water reserves. On economic grounds, the 1991–92 harvest was estimated to have cost the government around US$480 per tonne compared with world prices for wheat of US$100 per tonne. At present, the national goal is diversification of agricultural production in order to meet the growing demand for other types of crops, and to adjust the wheat production to the level of annual national consumption.
Because of the development of agriculture, which is by far the largest water user, the depletion of fossil groundwater takes place at very high rates. It is expected that at the present rates of abstraction, all reserves will be used within the next 25–30 years. The Ministry of Planning had proposed a target to reduce annual irrigation water use from the current 15.3 km3 to 14.7 km3 by the year 2000. Measures to be taken were:

  • implementation of effective irrigation schedules at farm level to deliver irrigation water according to actual crop need, which is expected to result in a saving of water of at least 30 per cent;
  • replacement of surface irrigation systems by sprinkler irrigation and micro-irrigation systems;
  • shifting some fodder and cereals areas from high to lower water consumption zones, and cultivation of crops with lower water requirements; and
  • introduction of water meters at farm level to control pumping of water.

Extensive pumping of groundwater has resulted in a significant drop in the groundwater level (100 metres in the northwest in the last decade), requiring deeper and larger holes to be drilled and a higher head for pumping, which results in a higher production cost. Groundwater quality has deteriorated to the point where it can no longer be used for municipal supply without expensive treatment. Furthermore, only half the groundwater reserves are located near the areas of highest demand. Coastal areas suffer increasingly from sea water intrusion into groundwater.

While Saudi Arabia is already by far the largest producer of desalinated water, future development will have to depend even more on development of this source and on reuse of treated wastewater. However, desalinated water is still too saline for agricultural use, the problem of the rapid depletion of fossil water is still a long way from being solved.

Discussion Questions

Q:  Can you think of examples in your country of policies that had impact on a specific state of the environment? Was this impact good or bad?
Q:  Is it possible that other policies also had an impact on this environmental state?


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Though I'd rather bilbne on that cake than quibble on it, I will offer an alternative viewpoint, and one that is often lost on my esteemed colleagues in the groundwater community: water can (and does) exist in large open voids as lakes, pools, and streams underground, in areas we collectively refer to as . are the manifestation of formerly filled phreatic voids, formed by the dissolution of the rocks that contain them. The water that formed these voids is, in fact, groundwater; however, in karst areas the groundwater very often is young , and began its life as surface water in a stream before it encountered a and disappeared underground. So, I would submit that the savvy geologist who baked this cake had an understanding of karst, and that the uppermost dark and light brown layers are carbonate rocks, limestones or dolomites. The stream encountered a sink point, and flowed down through the carbonate before encountering a contact with an insoluble layer of sandstone or shale (the creamy-white layer), where it happily continued its way horizontally through an underground cave. Try going caving in an active stream passage some time you'll never see groundwater the same way again.
Module 5 - Integrated analysis of environmental trends and policies
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