- This week at the United Nations Water Conference, the growing level of global food insecurity from a lack of water should be addressed.
- “We urgently need a worldwide evaluation of water-related food risks that offers immediate and practical solutions,” a new op-ed argues.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of Mongabay.
The vulnerabilities in our global food system have never been more apparent than they are right now, during a moment some have described as a “poly-crisis.” Between international conflict in breadbasket regions creating shortages to changing climate affecting yields, the food sector upon which humanity depends for survival is deeply precarious. Scientists know that rainfall variability is growing, extreme water events are becoming more intense and frequent, and higher temperatures evaporate more and more of our water. These inevitable trends in water pose critical risks to our food systems, human and natural resilience and economies. Unaddressed, they will increase instability, conflict and food and fuel price spikes.
Amidst these challenges, the urgency of stabilizing the global freshwater supply stands out as critical. As the world gathers this week in New York City for the first United Nations Water Conference in almost 50 years, we must address these vulnerabilities head-on. The conference provides a critical opportunity to address the challenges — and highlight possible solutions — in the water and food systems nexus on the world stage. We can reframe water as a global common good, a decadal enlightenment project based on demonstration in democratic deliberation that can enable true co-financing and drive development forward in a systemic way.
Food production systems are exceptionally vulnerable to drought and declining groundwater supplies, a challenge made worse as climate change increases fluctuations in precipitation and, therefore, the severity of drought risk. With a world population set to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, the pressing demands on water and food systems will increase agriculture’s dependence on freshwater sources, further stressing the water supplies needed for other uses like community drinking water.
Given the global food system’s dependence on freshwater to feed a growing global population, water issues are food issues. Water management, policy dialogues, and investment must focus on food security in the face of changing climate. We need to “connect the water sector with the world’s largest water user – the agriculture sector,” as stated by the Rome Water Dialogue, a global project to strengthen national economic, social and environmental strategies.
Accordingly, we urgently need a worldwide evaluation of water-related food risks that offers immediate and practical solutions. By focusing on water and food policies, we can address water-food system risks by incorporating proactive agriculture management. Most importantly, alignment between agriculture and water must inform all climate change solutions, helping strengthen the resilience of our food systems and allow communities to thrive.
Collective intelligence, sharing knowledge and designing market-shaping approaches in an outcome-oriented way will be the key to the meaningful integration of water and food systems. We should go beyond integrated water resource management. Designing and convening conversations are vital to building influence alignment in redirecting financing, increasing effective collaboration for impact, and helping build support for innovative, bold ideas. Developing innovative solutions and actions for the future depends on our efforts, such as:
- Building and strengthening current water and food systems initiatives and partnerships, with the understanding that best practices are to be shared between projects;
- Rethinking and establishing innovative financial structures to actualize joint water and food system planning; and
- Coordinating shared water management data with projects like OpenET, the EDF collaborative with NASA and the Desert Research Institute, or the newly launched IWMI drought management project in South Asia, allowing farmers to find timely solutions to crop management, illustrating what operative partnerships and information sharing may become.
But above all, we must ensure that impacted and vulnerable populations lead to pooled water. Food systems work—often the first affected by the world’s most pressing environmental concerns, and those with the most innovative and durable solutions. And we must protect our precious natural land, water and climate resources for now and the future. Take, for instance, such solutions from smallholder farmer-led irrigation projects in Sub-Saharan Africa. EDF and GWP are prepared for action, working with front-line communities and all stakeholders to implement plans to improve water and food systems. Ultimately, the long-term goal is to consider our initiatives’ food and water nexus to help galvanize a joint global action response that will positively impact vulnerable populations.
By enacting this shift from a siloed water and food agenda to a joint one, we can catapult ourselves closer to answers than we have ever been. Let’s use collective action, collaborative optimism, and center water in planning food systems and move towards tangible solutions more efficiently and effectively. Working together, we can shape food systems worldwide that produce urgently needed nutritional benefits and are aligned with long-term water supplies and the diverse water needs of local communities.
Thomas Grasso is Vice President of Climate Resilient Food Systems for the Environmental Defense Fund, and Darko Manakovski is Head of Global Development with the Global Water Partnership.
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: Top sustainable agriculture author Tom Philpott discusses the multiple challenges facing our industrialized food systems, like groundwater depletion, and how agroecology provides many solutions, listen here:
See related: The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change says agroecology is a top climate solution: