Water Security Is Essential to Global Food Security

Water security—in light of climate change, population growth, and agricultural pressures on supplies—is in jeopardy across the globe. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) expects the global population to rise by 2 billion people by 2050, and 47 percent of the world’s population could be living under severe water stress by then, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

A new report, “Water, Food Security and Human Dignity—A Nutrition Perspective,” was commissioned by the Swedish FAO Committee to examine the importance of water to global food security.

According to the report, the rate of increase of agricultural production has exceeded the rate of population growth by 30 percent in recent decades. Incidence and prevalence of overweight and obesity have ballooned, while undernourishment and famine have been significantly reduced. To relieve pressure on limited water and bring food supply in line with demand, policymakers should therefore prioritize the reduction of food waste and equitable distribution, according to the authors of the publication.

Dr. Roberto Lenton, Executive Director of the The Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute at the University of Nebraska, co-authored a section on drought, emphasizing the need for better preparedness, risk management, and year-round water conservation.

The institute has created a Global Yield Gap Atlas to boost crop yields while conserving land and water, using mapping technologies. To build a framework for resilience, Dr. Lenton believes "we have to be much more careful, much more precise, in the amount of water we use. And we want to make sure agriculture doesn't take so much water that it pulls it away from other important needs."

According to research highlighted by the report, droughts represent society’s new normal, lasting for years and contributing to the depletion of groundwater and underground water reservoirs. In the United States, the cost of droughts to taxpayers and the government in 2011 and 2012 alone totaled US$60-100 billion. These economic losses are overshadowed by the loss of life in Africa due to drought, which was estimated to have caused the deaths of 50,000-100,000 people in 2011 and impacted the livelihoods of more than 13 million people.

Despite these enormous challenges, there are many existing solutions to more efficient water management that could be scaled out across the globe. Salt tolerant crops could enable food production in new areas, and desalination could allow seawater to be used for irrigation. Participatory watershed management and national policies that fairly allocate water rights should also be top priorities for water efficiency in agriculture.

More sustainable irrigation practices, such as center pivot, microirrigation, and solar drip irrigation systems, can increase productivity while improving water efficiency.

And through practices such as no-till farming and rotational grazing systems, farmers can contribute to on-the-ground solutions that simultaneously save water and improve soil quality.

Reducing food waste and improving distribution of food can also make a huge difference in relieving pressure on freshwater sources. According to Jan Lundqvist, a lead author of the report, “a lot of attention is paid solely to increase production. Nutritional issues, access and water, and environmental contexts should guide agricultural and consumer policies in a world that is getting richer and fatter. Overeating, empty calories, waste, and associated social costs should be recognized and dealt with.” Lundqvist will address these issues at the Nestlé Headquarters in August, at the 25th Economic Forum in Kyrnica Zdro, Poland in September, and at the Milan EXPO 2015 in September.

The Swedish FAO Committee celebrates new forms of collaboration between governments, the private sector, and civil society that foster technical innovations and the valuation of human rights. Facilitation of trade is also vital to the protection of vulnerable groups, according to the authors of the report.

The publication will inform a summit in Rome on Global Food Security, which will convene in October. The High Level Panel of Expert- UN Committee on Global Food Security (HLPE-CFS) will focus on water throughout this panel. SIWI will host a seminar at World Water Week on Monday, August 24, 2015, to further discuss the importance of water to global food security.  

Authors of the report are affiliated with the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) and the Embassy of Sweden in Jordan. The High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE), an FAO panel that was established in 2010 as the interface between science and policy for the U.N. Committee on World Food Security (CFS), contributed scientific expertise and evidence to the publication as well. 

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