The world is running out of clean, fresh water to feed - and nourish - a growing global population, ensure sustainable development, and maintain the health of our planet. There is not enough water - as currently managed - to adequately sustain the world’s population and end hunger and malnutrition. Therefore, better water management is crucial to global food and nutrition security.
Obviously, irrigation is key to increasing food production and farm income and improves resilience against weather variability. But water also affects food security and nutrition through other pathways. More precise irrigation management increases not just the volume but also the diversity of food that can be produced, including dry season crops and micronutrient-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables. Improvements in the proximity and cleanliness of water sources and technologies for water extraction supports women’s empowerment and well-being, saving time and improving health. Effective management of multiple uses of water and wastewater reduces exposure to fecal contamination and the risk of infectious diseases.
To contribute decisively to ending hunger, water management, policies and investments must overcome daunting challenges. Rising global population, incomes, and urbanization are driving strong and diversified growth in food and water demand—and intensified competition for water within agriculture and across agricultural, domestic, and industrial uses. The global population is projected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, with by far the largest growth occurring in Africa and South Asia, where food security problems are the most severe. Meanwhile, rising incomes and urbanization will increase demand for meat and more nutritious diets- and therefore more water for livestock feed, and the need for more precise water management for fruits and vegetables.
Rapid urbanization also boosts water demand for household and industry, creating competition with irrigation in important water-scarce agricultural regions. That competition can turn into outright conflict, disrupting local livelihoods and triggering migration and transborder disputes.
Developing new sources of water to alleviate competition is difficult: the cost of developing water for irrigation and other uses is increasing, as the more accessible sources have already been utilized.
Even projected increases in global production of cereals of 37% between 2010 and 2050, meat by 66%, and fruits and vegetables by 85%, progress on hunger and nutrition will be too slow, Water scarcity could compound this problem, further jeopardizing production growth and continued progress on hunger and nutrition.
Climate change presents another serious challenge. Climate impacts across the entire water cycle could substantially slow progress on water management, agricultural production, and food and nutrition. Increased variability in rainfall and streamflow, reduced rainfall in many dry regions, and thirstier crops due to higher temperatures will all require new policies and management to create more predictable and precise supplies of water. Sea level rise will lead to inundation and salt water intrusion in existing irrigated and rainfed areas, putting further pressure on the land base.
Intensive groundwater pumping for irrigation has depleted aquifers in many arid and semiarid agricultural regions, leading to saltwater intrusion and declining water tables. India’s Green Revolution, for example, relied on irrigation to greatly improve productivity, but it also massively reduced groundwater reserves.
Finally, water pollution in both agricultural and non-agricultural sectors damages health and nutrition and reduces food production, constraining agricultural and economic development, especially in densely populated regions where water is already scarce and wastewater treatment is poor.
These global water security challenges are immense—as are the risks of inaction. But they can be overcome. If this vital resource is properly managed, it will be possible to meet both the food and water needs of current generations and begin building a sustainable, nourishing food system for the future.
The broad strategies outlined below can guide the design of regional and local priorities and begin to move the world toward greater food and nutrition security.
These policy reforms and investments will be difficult to implement and take time, political commitment, and money. Prevailing policies have strong constituencies that can be resistant to change. But overcoming these challenges will only get harder the longer they go unaddressed. The time to act on fundamental reform of water policies for food and nutrition security is now.
Mark Rosegrant is Research Fellow Emeritus with IFPRI's Director General's Office http://www.ifpri.org/