Count on water to disaster-proof global food systems

PUBLISHED: Fri, 18 Jun 2021 10:51:50 GMT
Dr. Stefan Uhlenbrook, Program Director for Water, Food and Ecosystems at CGIAR's (IWMI)
CNBC Africa
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Covid-19 has cast a long shadow over global dialogues around food and nutrition security bringing into sharp focus the relationship between public health, poverty and hunger.

In addition to the pandemic, other threats to food and nutrition security loom large, from climate change and biodiversity loss to trade wars.

But there is one single threat that poses a danger above all others and which must be at the top of the international development agenda because it impacts every aspect of the food system everywhere: risks to and from water.

Access to supplies of water, or an overabundance, can make or break food production and consumption systems. In sub-Saharan Africa for instance, 50 million people live in areas where severe drought has catastrophic effects on farmland. As climate change often manifests itself through increasing floods and droughts, the situation is likely to worsen unless drastic action is taken to mitigate the continent’s – and the world’s – water risks. 

Yet while climate change is an important factor in growing water risks, poor management of water resources can also have a significant impact on food security. Investing in water management and infrastructure, both natural and engineered, offers important protection against future food crises and can increase yields under normal conditions.

Many countries are already gearing up to invest in better ways to manage water and shore up their reserves, including in the US, where $100 billion is earmarked to upgrade water infrastructure to build resilience and create jobs. And in Ethiopia, which is no stranger to water risks, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is intended to improve regional energy supply, while at the same time managing the risks of floods and droughts and improving irrigation.

Countries also need to be able to account for their water resources. By monitoring flows and reserves more accurately, governments will be able to identify shortages and better direct water according to need. And this is key to building more resilient food systems.

Take the International Water Management Institute’s collaboration with Digital Earth Africa, for example, which leverages decades of satellite data to create an open-sourced database and applications to help governments, communities and companies to better manage their water.

The project has already helped farmers with flood and drought mapping, and has the potential to strengthen food systems, build resilient economies and reduce vulnerabilities to climate change. Every country would benefit from collating and leveraging information that is already available, yet too often out of reach.

Enabling more open data about water supplies and needs will also help better manage water allocations to different sectors and regions. Competing and growing demands for water from sectors such as agriculture, energy, industry, domestic use and sanitation and hygiene, will always result in trade-offs, winners and losers.

For instance, agriculture is responsible for 70 per cent of global freshwater withdrawals, and more than 90 per cent in agrarian economies, yet the pandemic has reiterated the importance of water for hygiene, adding even more pressure on demand. Countries need support to move away from such competition towards better management of the whole water system with all uses and users, thus encouraging cooperation and coordination.

One solution can be found in the form of multiple-use water services (MUS) projects, whereby local communities become the drivers of decision-making on water use. For instance, in South Africa, an MUS project is fostering new forms of water co-management to allocate water in a way that allows families to irrigate, cook, drink and wash.  

The way that we store water using engineered “grey” infrastructure, such as dams, or nature-based “green” infrastructure, like wetlands or groundwater, is also critical. In fact, integrated solutions are necessary to counter the increasing global water storage gap that seriously hampers sustainable development and resilience.

Further innovation is needed to sustainably provide water services that reflect the multiple water needs of households, various sectors, and industries now and under future conditions.

Yet lack of access to finance – and subsequently new technologies, integrated solutions and capacity – hamper water management efforts across sectors and communities. Bringing down these barriers with greater investment and novel financing mechanisms will help unlock greater efficiencies and deliver better water management and conserve environmental resources.

Governments must work with partners in research and the private sector to enable funding both for the development and deployment of sustainable water solutions like solar-powered irrigation systems, monitoring of water use through Earth observation technology, or better forecasting systems for floods and droughts.

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Earlier this year the Food Systems Summit Global Dialogue on Water underlined why water has to be a key issue at the critical UN Food Systems Summit in September. Participants agreed that water plays an essential role in future-proofing food systems against climate shocks and pandemics, making them more inclusive and healthier, ending hunger and malnutrition and safeguarding the health of our planet.

Not preparing for and managing water scarcity in our food systems is a risk the world cannot afford to take. Far better to prepare for the threat of water scarcity and manage the risks, than to be complacent and see our very food systems dry up.