Water scarcity threatens future food security

Four billion people are currently affected by water scarcity.  In the future, even more people will have to share these limited resources.  Experts say that water scarcity will be one of the greatest challenges to future food security.

Rivers and lakes dry up while groundwater levels fall. Two-thirds of the world’s population is already affected by water shortages.  In the future, these problems will only become more serious, because more and more people will have to share our scarce water resources.

“It is an alarming issue. The global population is growing, and at the same time, so is water use per capita,” says Professor Arjen Y. Hoekstra at the University of Twente in the Netherlands.

Water shortages do not only affect people who live in water-scarce areas.  According to the United Nations’ Food- and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), future water scarcity will also affect global food production and thereby global food security.

 More people will have to share the water

Today, four billion people live with water scarcity at least one month per year, while 500 million live with it year-round, according to new research Hoekstra has published in the journal Science Advances.

According to UN projections, the world’s population will be 9.7 billion in 2050, and the increasing population will only intensify pressure on the world’s resources. In a FAO report ‘Towards World Agriculture 2030/2050’, projections suggest that there is enough water available globally to sustain the world in 2050, but since the water is not equally distributed, an increasing number of countries will face growing water scarcity, impacting rural livelihoods and food security.

FAO points at water scarcity as one if the the largest challenges of the 21st century, and expect to see more conflicts over water in the future.

Water conflicts like the one in Chile’s Petorca Province, where local communities and avocado plantations are fighting over the rights to the area’s scarce water resources, are just the beginning, according to experts.

“We see conflicts over water in many parts of the world today, often between agricultural and growing urban areas, and also within the agricultural sector,” says Peter G. McCornick, Executive Director of the Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute at the University of Nebraska (DWFI), and an expert in water scarcity and food security.  According to McCornick, water scarcity can contribute to the destabilisation of fragile societies, even if clashes over water do not necessarily escalate to armed conflict between countries.

Changing food habits

Global water resources are not only under threat because the world’s population is growing, but also because rising incomes mean that we are changing our consumption habits and eating differently.

“Urbanisation and increased economic growth has radically changed our water use, placing increased demands on resources that are already scarce in many regions of the world” says McCornick, explaining that improved standards of living mean that many countries import much more food.  For example, countries like China are experiencing rising demand for a varied diet as the population can afford to buy new kinds of foods.

According to Hoekstra, consumer habits have been shifting toward a diet that requires much more water to produce.  He does not believe, however, that it is possible to conclude that eating avocados is always problematic.

“One can ask oneself whether it is wise to buy avocados from water-scarce areas in Chile, for example,” he says. “There is nothing wrong with making profits from food exports, but when the water use behind it is not sustainable, there is a risk of making short-term profits on long-term costs.”

Food consumption affects water scarcity

Worldwide, agriculture is far and away the industry that uses the most water.  According to the FAO database AQUASTAT, the agricultural sector accounts for 70 percent of global water withdrawal. The UN organisation therefore highlights that the solutions in regards to future water scarcity should include the agricultural sector, by way of, amongst others, managerial policy, legislation and technology, that could include promoting the safe reuse of drainage and wastewater for irrigation of crops.

Even though every kind of food production requires water, the global food economy does not account for water scarcity patterns in any way, according to Hoekstra.

“Food is produced where it is cheapest, and this is often where land and labour are cheapest. Water is not factored into the price of commodities because it is generally for free, even in the most water-scarce areas” he says. Hoekstra does not believe this is a sustainable situation.

“Water-intensive products should instead be produced in areas that are water-abundant. Take Northern Europe, which is water-abundant. It is well suited to producing food for itself and for other countries,” he says.  Europe, explains Hoekstra, is the region that has outsourced the largest share of its water footprint to other parts of the world by importing food that requires large water inputs.

“It is not sustainable because our food is being produced in other areas of the world where there is water scarcity.  At the same time, we are putting our food security at risk,” he says.

Businesses have a responsibility to society

According to Copenhagen Business School Professor Andreas Rasche, who researches corporate social responsibility,  farmers, governments, manufacturers, food retailers and end consumers each have a role to play in coping with future water scarcity.

“The right to water is extremely important.  Without water, our economy would not function, and many small farmers would not be able to survive,” says Andreas Rasche.

In his view, companies who buy produce directly from water-scarce areas risk being complicit in human rights violations.

“If businesses knowingly buy produce that contributes to regional water scarcity, they are directly complicit in human rights violations, because they benefit from those violations,” says Rasche.