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How Water Shortages Impact Food Security

CRISIS - Biosystem Viability by Samara Husbands Global Commons Jul 25th 20239 mins
How Water Shortages Impact Food Security

The term ‘food security’ is outlined by the United Nations Committee on World Food Security (CFS) as a situation in which “all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life.” While the UN stands firm in its commitment to food security via Goal 2 of the SDGs, an estimated 345.2 million people are projected to be food insecure in 2023. But what role do water shortages play in food security?

What’s Behind A Water Shortage?

According to the Met Office, food security is assessed by four measurements, availability, access, utilisation, and stability, and it is directly affected by water shortage. Extreme weather events extreme events such as drought, heatwaves, heavy rainfall, and flooding can play a part in exacerbating food insecurity.

1. Agriculture 

Agriculture is both a victim and a cause of water scarcity, as it is by far the industry that consumed the most water. Accounting for 70% of all freshwater withdrawals globally, its thirst for water will only increase as the world population continues to grow. The World Bank estimates that agricultural output will need to expand by another 70% by 2050 to meet the demand arising from this rapid expansion.

2. Climate Change

Rapidly rising global temperatures and increased and more intense precipitation patterns have vastly impacted global resources’ quality and spatial distribution, making drought and wildfires occur more frequently. Increasing environmental disasters decrease the amount of available water, which is vital to keep irrigated agriculture going. Climate change could put millions at risk of food shortage, while climate shocks also destroy lives, crops, and livelihoods, and undermine people’s ability to feed themselves and have access to water.

3. Water Contamination

Contamination is responsible for the death of millions of people every year. Sewage-later water and waste from agriculture and industry flow through most rivers and streams without treatment, allowing pesticides and toxic chemicals to leach into the groundwater and freshwater systems, critically lowering the availability of water resources.

You might also like: ‘Forever Chemicals’ Contaminate Half of US Drinking Water

4. Population Growth

Population growth and urbanisation drive up the demand for freshwater. Countries with large and ever-increasing populations, like China, South Africa, Europe, and a few US states, have experienced water crises and droughts in recent years. Freshwater is already a scarce resource: only 2.5% of the total water volume on Earth is freshwater; inaccessible for the most part without the necessary infrastructure.

4 Effects of Water Shortages

1. Conflict

Water and conflict exist as intertwined entities. While water scarcity drives conflict, conflict drives hunger, straining water and food supplies, and health systems. Nearly all of the conflict-related emergencies UNICEF has responded to in recent years have involved an attack hindering access to water.

2. Natural Disasters

Extreme weather events like droughts and floods can deplete or contaminate water supplies. Drought causes agricultural loss, reductions in water quality and availability, further driving global food insecurity

Droughts are especially devastating in arid and semi-arid areas, reducing crop yields and livestock quality and productivity. In Southern and Southeast Asia, extensive periods of drought are having an irreversible impact on food availability and prices of food, contributing to severe malnourishment in the region. In February 2021, the UN World Food Program (WFP) reported that severe droughts in the Horn of Africa have left an estimated 13 million people facing hunger. 

Wildfires, like we have seen recently plague North America, also contribute to the contamination of water sources in the area, having a knock-on effect on social and economic issues, like food security.

3. Agriculture

The way we produce our food continues to cause problems for the water cycle. The water used for agricultural processes, pollution caused by harsh fertilisers, rearing livestock, and the tragic exploitation of the ocean perpetuate the endless cycle of water destruction and lack of adequate food sources.

By 2050, it is estimated the total number of people living on Earth will reach nearly 10 billion, meaning more food will be required to meet demand. As a result, the amount of water combined with nitrogen fertiliser will need to be increased by an implausible 100% and 800% respectively.

4. Food waste

Food waste is directly related to population growth (a contributing factor to water shortage) and is also a major driver for food insecurity. Around a third of the total food produced for human consumption per year – around 1.3 billion tons – is wasted or lost; this is enough to feed 3 billion people or nearly 40% of the global population.

3 Effects of Food Shortages

At present, we are facing the third global food crisis in 15 years. Countries that face the highest rates of undernourishment, child wasting (low weight-for-height), stunting, and child mortality do so mainly due to malnutrition.

According to Action Against Hunger, the world’s hungriest nations are Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan. But, even in wealthy nations like America, 1 in 9 people – equating to 37 million people – are reportedly suffering from food insecurity. 

1. Malnutrition 

Malnutrition is defined by the World Health Organisation as ‘deficiencies, excesses or imbalances in a person’s intake of energy and/or nutrients’. Although we tend to think of malnutrition as being undernourished, people who suffer from obesity also fall under the umbrella.

Staggeringly, 462 million people are underweight worldwide, while 159 million children are stunted and 50 million are wasted. This is because many families cannot afford or access enough nutritious foods like fresh fruit and vegetables, legumes, meat, and milk, instead opting for cheaper produce with high fat, sugar and salt content.

The impact of water shortage on food security is clear. Unsafe water and sanitation can lead to malnutrition and exacerbate existing problems. “No matter how much food a malnourished child eats, he or she will not get better if the water they are drinking is not safe,” says Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF Director of Emergency Programmes. Malnutrition can lead to a host of other problems, such as diarrhoea and water-borne diseases like cholera. Lack of access to food can lower life expectancy and increase the potential of health-related costs.

2. Rising Food Prices

If food production is decreased, prices of food will increase, creating a barrier of entry to food accessibility. As a result of the war in Ukraine, the prices of sunflower oil have increased, making the food scarce in many regions.

Global fertiliser prices have skyrocketed beyond food prices, which remain at a ten-year high themselves. The war in Ukraine has resulted in higher natural gas prices and has further disrupted global fertiliser production and exports – reducing supplies, raising prices and threatening to reduce harvests. High fertiliser prices could transform the current food affordability crisis into a food availability crisis, with production of maize, rice, soybean and wheat falling in 2022.

In response to the short supply, some countries have banned the export of crops, fertiliser to preserve their own stores. This is not possible for some vulnerable countries, however. These preserves simply do not exist, which means their people have fallen into states of famine, acute food insecurity or undernourishment. 

3. Conflict

Just like water scarcity, food insecurity can also lead to conflict. Events in Ukraine illustrate how conflict fuels hunger – forcing people out of their homes, wiping out their sources of income and wrecking countries’ economies. 70% of the world’s hungry people live in areas affected by war and violence. Additionally, Russia is both a top wheat and fertiliser supplier, and the war has interrupted inventory and caused prices to soar.

What Are the Solutions to Water Scarcity for Hunger Prevention?

Sustainable agricultural practices and food systems, including both production and consumption, must be pursued from a holistic and integrated perspective. Wise management of scarce water through improved irrigation and storage technologies, combined with the development of new drought-resistant crop varieties, can contribute to sustaining drylands productivity.

A $300 million project in Bolivia supported by The World Bank will contribute to increasing food security, market access, and the adoption of climate-smart agricultural practices, while a further $50 million grant of additional financing for Tajikistan should mitigate food and nutrition insecurity impacts on households and enhance the overall resilience of the agriculture sector.

A focus on infrastructure is vital to tackling water shortages and ensuring food security. Building more irrigation infrastructure may not be a solution if future water supply proves to be inadequate to supply the irrigation systems, says The World Bank. Simple changes like smart investments can prevent needless deaths and transform lives. According to the UN, 100-200 billion cubic metres of water could be saved globally by 2030 in urban areas simply by reducing leaks. 

Smart-water management systems, like the ones implemented in South Korea, are proving effective in tackling water shortages. They improve the reliability, soundness, and efficiency of water management. 

While “it is possible to reduce emissions and become more resilient, doing so often requires major social, economic, and technological change”, according to The World Bank, the threats of food security will be ongoing, especially if we are slow to sufficiently address climate change. We can focus on using water more efficiently and effectively, switching to less thirsty crops, and improving soil health, but water scarcity as a result of the climate crisis will accelerate, having a major impact on the food cycle and nutrition.

The World Bank Group’s Climate Change Action Plan (2021-2025) is stepping up support for climate-smart agriculture across the agriculture and food value chains and via policy and technological interventions to enhance productivity, improve resilience, and reduce GHG emissions.

Communities are key to preventing water-induced food insecurity. UNICEF is working with partners through groundwater extraction and drilling for reliable sources of groundwater.

The Alliance for Water Stewardship, a globally accepted framework for major water users promotes the sustainable use of water. It offers solutions for reducing the impact of water scarcity by measuring water use.

You might also like: How to Build Climate-Resilient Communities

Reducing food waste from transportation, fussy customers, and inadequate storage facilities is another key requirement, especially considering that 1.3 billion tonnes of food – roughly one-third of all food produced globally – is wasted globally each year. That would be enough to feed 3 billion people.

The argument against the commercialisation of food production states that if food is grown for the purpose of feeding the inhabitants of a nation, food insecurity will decrease, as local farmers will produce food crops until there is sufficient supply, and then can concentrate on cash crops. 

Diversification of diet can lead to better nutrition. Education on the varieties of foods, especially seasonal ones, means sufficient staple foods will be available to all.

As part of a comprehensive, global response to the food security crisis, the World Bank announced in May 2022 that it is making up to $30 billion available over a period of 15 months in a bid to scale up short- and long-term responses along four themes to boost food and nutrition security, reduce risks, and strengthen food systems: (i) Support producers and consumers, (ii) facilitate increased trade in food and trade inputs, (iii) support vulnerable households, and (iv) invest in sustainable food and nutrition security.

While, in April 2016, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition resolution. It hopes to ensure all people have access to healthier and more sustainable diets to eradicate all forms of malnutrition worldwide. 

UNICEF is working with the government of Somalia to provide vital interventions in response to drought including providing food to treat acute malnutrition and micronutrients to tackle deficiencies. It also provided 480,000 individuals with access to emergency water in early 2022. 

Final Thoughts

It is clear that food insecurity can be triggered by severe water shortages, caused by inefficient agricultural practices, climate change, drought, pollution, and conflict. The effects of these issues can be seen in the unprecedented numbers of malnourished and undernourished people and children in highly water-stressed regions, as well as lack of access to affordable water, rising health-related costs, and conflict. 

In order to properly address these problems, global actors must introduce water scarcity reduction measures such as sustainable agriculture, establish changes to consumption patterns, and put climate change at the forefront of the global agenda.

You might also like: Exploring the Most Efficient Solutions to Water Scarcity

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