Water: The forgotten crisis

Jul 10, 2008

This year, the world and, in particular, developing countries and the poor have been hit by both food and energy crises. As a consequence, prices for many staple foods have risen by up to 100%. When we examine the causes of the food crisis, a growing population, changes in trade patterns, urbanization, dietary changes, biofuel production, and climate change and regional droughts are all responsible. Thus we have a classic increase in prices due to high demand and low supply.

However, few commentators specifically mention the declining availability of water that is needed to grow irrigated and rainfed crops. According to some, the often mooted solution to the food crisis lies in plant breeding that produces the ultimate high yielding, low water- consuming crops. While this solution is important, it will fail unless attention is paid to where the water for all food, fibre and energy crops is going to come from.

A few years ago, IWMI (the International Water Management Institute) demonstrated that many countries are facing severe water scarcity, either as a result of a lack of available fresh water, or due to a lack of investment in water infrastructure such as dams and reservoirs. What makes matters worse is that this scarcity predominantly affects developing countries where the majority of the world's under-nourished people-- approximately 840 million -- live.

The causes of water scarcity are essentially identical to those of the food crisis. There are serious and extremely worrying factors that indicate water supplies are steadily being used up. Essentially every calorie of food requires a liter of water to produce it. Thus those of us on western diets, use about 2500-3000 liters per day. A further 2.5 billion people by 2030 will mean that we have to find over 2000 more cubic kilometers of fresh water to feed them. This is not any easy task given that current water usage for food production is 7500 cubic kilometers and supplies are scarce. According to the recent report "Water for Food, Water for Life" of the Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture, which drew on the work of 700 scientists, unless we change the way we use water and increase "water productivity" (i.e. more crop per drop) we will not have enough water to feed the world's growing population (This population is estimated to increase from 6 billion now to about 8.5 billion in 25 years.) Compared with the lengthy agenda to combat climate change, this is a very short time indeed and yet the impacts of water scarcity will be profound. However, very little is being done about it in most countries.

Since the formulation of the UN Millennium Goals in 2002, much of the water agenda has been focused around the provision of drinking water and sanitation. This water comes from the same sources as agricultural water and as we urbanize and improve living standards there will be increasing competition for drinking water from domestic and other urban users, putting agriculture under further pressure. While improving drinking water and sanitation is vital with respect to health and living standards, we cannot afford to neglect the provision and improved productivity of water for agriculture.

There are potential solutions. Better water storage has to be considered. Ethiopia, which is typical of many sub-Saharan African countries, has a water storage capacity of 38 cubic meters per person. Australia has almost 5000 cubic meters per person, an amount that in the face of current climate change impacts may be inadequate. While there will be a need for new large and medium-sized dams to deal with this critical lack of storage in Africa, other simpler solutions are also part of the equation. These include the construction of small reservoirs, sustainable use of groundwater systems including artificial groundwater recharge and rainwater harvesting for smallholder vegetable gardens. Improved year- round access to water will help farmers maintain their own food security using simple supplementary irrigation techniques. The redesign of both the physical and institutional arrangements of some large and often dysfunctional irrigation schemes will also bring the required productivity increases. Safe, risk free reuse of wastewater from growing cities will also be needed. Of course these actions need to be paralleled by development of drought- tolerant crops, and the provision of infrastructure and facilities to get fresh food to markets.

Current estimates indicate that we will not have enough water to feed ourselves in 25 years time, by when the current food crisis may turn into a perpetual crisis. Just as in other areas of agricultural research and development, investment in the provision and better management of water resources has declined steadily since the green revolution. I and my water science colleagues are raising a warning flag that significant investment in both R&D and water infrastructure development are needed, if dire consequences are to be avoided.

Source: International Water Management Institute

Explore further: US delays decision on Keystone pipeline project

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

UN warns of drought crisis in Syria

Apr 08, 2014

The UN's food aid agency warned on Tuesday that Syria was facing a drought that could put millions of people's lives at risk, compounding the impact of years of war.

Brighter future for bacteria detection

Mar 20, 2014

Ever wonder why fruits and vegetables sometimes hit the shelves contaminated by pathogenic bacteria such as listeria, E. coli, and salmonella?

Study highlights indigenous response to natural disaster

Feb 13, 2014

When a tsunami struck American Samoa in 2009, indigenous institutions on the islands provided effective disaster relief that could help federal emergency managers in similar communities nationwide, according to a study from ...

Book empowers readers to help solve the food crisis

Feb 05, 2014

Carbon dioxide emissions from transportation, energy generation and built infrastructure may be major contributors to climate change, but they may not be the biggest ones. According to UC Santa Barbara environmental ...

Recommended for you

US delays decision on Keystone pipeline project

Apr 18, 2014

The United States announced Friday a fresh delay on a final decision regarding a controversial Canada to US oil pipeline, saying more time was needed to carry out a review.

New research on Earth's carbon budget

Apr 18, 2014

(Phys.org) —Results from a research project involving scientists from the Desert Research Institute have generated new findings surrounding some of the unknowns of changes in climate and the degree to which ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

agg
2.3 / 5 (6) Jul 10, 2008
how could we forget? Another Crisis!!!
Besides that the sky is falling and we're all going to die!!!
thku4grace
2 / 5 (3) Jul 11, 2008
This article is a real stretch. The food crisis is hardly due to lack of water. That isn't to say that we couldn't face a water crisis in certain parts of the world, but that's nothing new. I think Iowa has an abundant supply of water at the moment. Unfortunately, that abundance will actually hurt the food supply, but that happens from time to time. The food supply is only minimally affected by demand for ethanol, though Congress and the U.N. will tell you otherwise. The fact of the matter is that a couple of the most populated countries in the world have made spectacular advancement in the standard of living for their average household. Many of these people have subsisted on only one meal per day most of their lives. In the western world we're largely ignorant of the lives of others in developing countries. If a poor family finally ends up with a little more pocket money , they aren't going to go out and pick up an ipod. A second meal is what I would probably buy.

More news stories

China says massive area of its soil polluted

A huge area of China's soil covering more than twice the size of Spain is estimated to be polluted, the government said Thursday, announcing findings of a survey previously kept secret.

UN weather agency warns of 'El Nino' this year

The UN weather agency Tuesday warned there was a good chance of an "El Nino" climate phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean this year, bringing droughts and heavy rainfall to the rest of the world.

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...