This week, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs has released the new report: ‘From Scarcity to Security: Managing Water for a Nutritious Food Future’. With more than a third of all people on Earth – approximately 2.4 billion – living in water-scarce conditions, water management is already a priority. Yet the present situation pales in comparison to the worst-case scenario of the coming decades, according to the report authors.
With the global population expected to reach 9.8 billion people by the middle of the century, and with climate change anticipated to destabilize weather patterns in the coming years, the world faces a dual crisis of booming demand and a less predictable supply of water. The report highlights that over one-half of the world’s population could be at risk due to water stress in 2050.
Agriculture is responsible for 71 per cent of global water consumption, and the report cites that that water consumption for farming will increase by 21 per cent by 2050. Farmers will have to increasingly compete with industrial and domestic water demand, with 70 per cent of 2050’s population residing in rapidly growing urban areas which will increasingly demand more diverse and ‘western’ diets that place further demand on water supply. However, both climate change and the over-extraction of groundwater will mean that the supply of this water risks being ever more precarious in the coming decades.
In order to safeguard water resources for farmers and protect their harvests for coming generations, the report highlights several strategies to enhance water security, including: improving governance and institutions for effective water management, incentivising efficient water use through effective water policies, increasing water productivity through investment in agricultural research, development, and technology, shifting diets and diversifying agriculture to reduce demand for water and improve nutrition, and increase the managed water supply and expand irrigated areas.
Many of the report’s strategies emphasise the role of policymakers in changing the institutional and incentive structures for producers and consumers, but there is a great deal that can be done on the ground.
For example, increasing water productivity through agricultural research requires not just investment and incentives from governments, but initiative and action from farmers themselves to enact economic and cultural change, the report details. Concrete steps to increase water productivity include optimizing the efficiency and quality of livestock diets, adopting water-saving irrigation methods and systems, capturing more rainwater and using it more efficiently, and using advanced crop-management techniques enabled by new technology. Furthermore, research initiatives in plant breeding, agronomic and soil management, reducing post harvest losses, and mitigating pollution can allow existing water resources to feed more people.
Increasing the amount of irrigated area, so as to allow greater agricultural productivity than ever before, and increase the resilience of smallholders in the face of climate change is already working. This is especially important for smallholder farmers, who are the least likely to use irrigation methods. As smallholders tend to live in the regions facing the greatest increase in demand for food and the most water insecurity from climate change, it is paramount that innovations in irrigation reach this set of farmers. Thus, a major emphasis of the report is strategies to ensure that these water solutions reach smallholders.
Key means which are set out to ensure this include creating a conducive policy environment, introducing affordable technologies and precision agriculture solutions, expanding financial access, improving the value chain, expanding infrastructure, emboldening institutions to support irrigation management, investing in research and extension services, and building access to assets for women.
“The stakes are high for protecting our water resources, as increasing scarcity threatens to undermine the progress that has been made on global food and nutrition security,” argues managing director of the global food and agriculture program at the Council, Alesha Black, “Failure to treat water as a strategic, valuable and limited resource will accelerate water insecurity, even for historically water-secure populations, and it may threaten the economic and political security of nations, including the United States.”
Featured photo credits: REUTERS Mohamed al-Sayaghi / Anuwar Hazarika