In order to address the global issue of food insecurity, it is necessary to consider it in the context of water scarcity. According to the USGS, up to 70% of global freshwater resources are used for agricultural irrigation, highlighting the inextricable link between water resources and food production. The United Nations recognized both adequate food and access to clean water as human rights in 1948 and 2010 respectively. Still, this practical recognition has not been translated into a tangible reality.
Though water and food are linked, these resources aren’t always compatible. Much of the world’s agriculture, particularly in less developed countries, relies on rain-fed irrigation, which creates major vulnerability in the face of drought events associated with climate change. Even domestically, where many farmers have tapped into groundwater for additional irrigation, droughts pose a threat. During dry spells, the continuation of large-scale agricultural production can put unsustainable pressure on aquifers, which take years to recharge. Limited water resources cause tension among those who rely on them. In the United States, water use associated with agricultural production has caused multiple interstate conflicts, particularly between California and the six other Western states that rely on the Colorado River basin.
The availability of freshwater resources varies greatly among the different regions of the world. About one-third of the global population resides in arid regions, and the population in these areas is growing faster than in any other ecological zone. The increased demand for food understandably exacerbates food insecurity in those parts of the world, which are very often less developed countries. But overpopulation alone should not be blamed for the problem. In fact, it is possible to ensure adequate water and nutrition to the 9.1 billion people predicted to live on earth by 2050. So how is this achieved?
Shifts in agricultural practices and irrigation, driven by small farmers, are key strategies in addressing water scarcity. In arid areas, small-scale irrigation can be much more water-efficient than industrial scale, and rainwater collection can offer a reliable water resource in times of drought. Another way is to re-examine food systems and dietary choices. In many cases, it is not necessarily about a need for more water so much as a need for better crops. Rice, for instance, is one of the world’s most popular cereals, with a high-water demand and a relatively low nutritional value. Whereas varieties of millet, another type of grain, are water-efficient and more nutritious. Though the importance of rice in many diets should not be understated, swapping out some of the global rice crops for other cereal varieties could reduce the pressure on water resources. Additionally, reduction in meat consumption plays a role because of the massive water demands associated with raising livestock. This is especially applicable to industrial livestock production.
The value chain for the world’s food supply also requires significant improvement. As it stands, 30% of the food produced goes to waste. There are losses at every stage of the supply chain, from harvest, to transport, to distribution. Wasted food also means wasted water. The development of better roads, cold chains (the temperature control mechanisms for certain foods), and water re-cycling infrastructure reduces food and water losses. Further, reducing barriers for international trade in some contexts will be critical, as food imports may be one remedy for food shortages that will occur as a result of water scarcity.
There is widespread agreement that a major component of minimizing food insecurity is the proper management of water resources. There is a need for more comprehensive water management interventions, which combine strong state regulation with decentralized management practices. Ensuring water rights for smallholder farmers grants them greater security and a sense of ownership, thereby increasing the likelihood that these producers will be willing to follow good use practices and implement agricultural innovations, such as altering crop varieties and management.
Participatory interventions for water management also present an exciting avenue for ecofeminism. In most households in less developed countries, water supply is the responsibility of women and girls. In arid areas, they may need to walk many miles to a reliable water source, which can threaten their health and take away valuable time that could be spent on education or other personal development opportunities. Thus, technology to increase water accessibility would directly empower these women. Additionally, even though 43% of smallholder farmers in less developed countries are women, they often lack decision-making power. As such, agricultural interventions have the potential to engage women in food governance.
Solving global water scarcity and food insecurity is undoubtedly a daunting task, but not an impossible one. Blue Access applies systems thinking by engaging diverse stakeholders and employing innovative solutions in both technology and sustainable finance. This approach can yield fascinating new interventions at the nexus of water and food, and help us move towards a healthier, more equitable world for all.