World Water Day 2012: Water and food security, two sides of the same coin

The following statement was released by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) for World Water Day 2012.

There are many compelling facts and figures about the outlook for food security around the world, but here’s one of the most urgent: By 2050, when the global population peaks at an estimated 9 billion, the amount of available food will have to increase by about 60 per cent in order to sustain humankind.

As the international community marks World Water Day on 22 March, it’s worth noting that our efforts to meet this challenge will depend largely upon protecting and conserving water, the ultimate agricultural resource.

The most recent UN World Water Development Report sounds a cautionary note, however. Released last week during the World Water Forum in Marseille, the report cites “major uncertainties about the amount of water required to meet demand for food, energy and other human uses, and to sustain ecosystems.” It concludes that the seemingly unquenchable thirst for water resources could derail progress on development, with an especially harsh impact on the poorest and most vulnerable households.

Threat of water scarcity

Based on current trends, almost all of the projected population growth over the next four decades will be in the developing world, where urbanization will accelerate as well. About 70 per cent of the population will live in cities by 2050, compared to about half today. Meanwhile, average income levels will rise – which is good news, of course, but with a price.

“As people get out of poverty, their diets become more water- and energy-intensive,” says IFAD Senior Technical Adviser Rudolph Cleveringa. As a result, he explains, the demand for meat and other high-calorie foods is likely to rise.

About 13,000 litres of water are needed to produce 1 kg of beef, so the disproportionate consumption of meat in industrialized countries already threatens the global water supply. Considering that 40 per cent of the global population is affected by water scarcity even now, a move toward much more water-intensive food production could seriously heighten this threat. At the same time, it would make poor nations more dependent upon food imports, impeding their economic and agricultural sustainability.

‘A holistic approach’

Should this scenario unfold, Cleveringa warns that it will severely deplete freshwater reserves that are under strain. One solution, he says, is to promote urban and rural diets with smaller water “footprints.” Such environmentally sustainable diets have the added advantage of being generally healthier options, reducing the risks of undernourishment and obesity alike.

Yet changes in dietary preferences will require a major attitude shift in both developing and industrialized countries. And even if this shift occurs, it will not be sufficient to head off water scarcity and food insecurity.

What’s needed beyond sustainable diets, says Cleveringa, is “a holistic approach” to the management of land and water resources, including:

  • Addressing the gender imbalance in agriculture to ensure that rural women have secure access to water and land, and are actively involved in water management
  • Preventing the loss of “virtual water” represented by the 30 per cent of food that is spoiled after harvest due to poor rural infrastructure and consumer waste
  • Enabling smallholder farmers to build resilience and adapt to climate variability (as IFAD’s new Adaptation for Smallholder Agriculture Programme, or ASAP, seeks to do) through the cultivation of more flood-tolerant and drought-resistant crops, among other measures
  • Improving water storage and supporting groundwater-retention strategies like spate irrigation, a traditional technology for collecting floodwater that would otherwise run off the land.

Water projects worldwide

“It’s time for solutions,” says Cleveringa, and indeed IFAD and its partners are collaborating on projects that take on all of the above issues.

In India, Guatemala and Madagascar, for example, IFAD finances micro-irrigation projects that help smallholder farmers – particularly women – save water and fertilizer by providing a slow but regular flow of water to their fields. Other projects support spate irrigation in the Gash Barka region of Eritrea, soil and water conservation in the Yarmouk valley in Jordan, agro-wells in the Matale district of Sri Lanka, and community water management through the Dom Helder Camera project in north-eastern Brazil. And the list goes on.

Still, the challenge is daunting. In a real sense, the question of mid-century food security remains unanswered, but one point is clear: Food and water are two sides of the same coin. Their futures, and ours, are inextricably bound together.

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