Commentary: Water & food shortages pose global security threat
Move over, oil. Water is the true liquid gold in the 21st century.
Remember that saying, “Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink”? Well, there’s a lot of truth to that.
Although 70% of the planet is covered in water, less than 4% of that is actually freshwater – unsalted water that’s safe for human consumption. However, more than half of the freshwater in the world are stored away in ice caps and glaciers in places far away from where most people live. So that leaves about 0.75% of the world’s water supply that can be readily accessed to grow food and for humans and animals to drink.
But to make matters worse, countries are wasting and polluting freshwater at such an unsustainable rate that the United Nations issued a grim warning yesterday: wars in the coming decades will be fought over freshwater supplies.
Water is a “global issue and a global risk,” said Dr. Ania Grobicki, Executive Secretary of the Global Water Partnership.
Thirst and starvation will worsen as the global population continues to grow rapidly. The International Fund for Agriculture Development projects there will be 9 billion people in the world by 2050, and the world’s food supply will need to increase by 60% to “sustain humankind.” The greater food demand will quickly deplete the scarce freshwater supply in many parts of the world, particularly in developing countries.
“Unless we increase our capacity to use water wisely in agriculture, we will fail to end hunger and we will open the door to a range of other ills, including drought, famine and political instability,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. “These interlinked challenges are increasing competition between communities and countries for scarce water resources, aggravating old security dilemmas, creating new ones.”
Even a report by the U.S. Director of National Intelligence concluded that global water and food shortages will cause political instability that hurt American “national security interests” and undermine the economies of important U.S. trading partners.
Some of the vulnerable areas cited in the report include:
- Nile, which runs through Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Burundi, and Rwanda;
- Tigris-Euphrates, which impacts through Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran;
- Mekong, which impacts Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and southern China;
- Jordan river, which impacts along Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, and Syria;
- Indus river, which impacts Pakistan, India, and parts of China;
- Brahmaputra river, which impacts India, Nepal, Tibet, Bangladesh, and parts of China;
- Amu Darya river, which impacts Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan
What’s contributing to the water shortage?
Globally, the biggest demand for water comes from agriculture. In fact, between 70% to 90% of the world’s freshwater is used to irrigate farmlands and maintain livestocks to feed a growing population. It takes about 525 to 1,300 gallons (or 2,000 to 5,000 liters) to produce enough food to feed a single person for one day.
But people’s eating habits impact the amount of water used for agriculture. Consider this: 2 pounds (or about 1 kilogram) of beef will require nearly 4,000 gallons (or 15,000 liters) of water, most of which is used to grow food to feed the cattle. On the other hand, producing 2 pounds of wheat will require less than 400 gallons (or 1,500 liters) of water. Eating less meat will not only help alleviate the water demand, it will also help reduce water pollution from pesticides used to grow livestock feed.
But even if everyone adopted a healthier and less water-intensive diet, that alone won’t be enough to solve the impending water and food crisis. Irrigation and rural infrastructure improvements are needed to prevent food waste and, thus, reduce water usage. Other mitigating measures include cultivating flood-toleratant and drought-resistant crops, capturing rainwater, enhancing water storage, and developing groundwater replenishment strategies.
“We must meet the agricultural demand in a way that conserves water and other natural resources, ranging from the sustainable intensification of agriculture capable of producing the food the world needs while using water more intelligently to changing the way we eat, reducing losses, waste and promoting healthier diets,” said José Graziano da Silva, Director-General for the Food and Agriculture Organization.
So while eating less meat and more vegetables won’t exactly save the world, it’s a good place to start. More importantly, smarter food choices and water management practices could buy some valuable time to implement all the necessary measures to avert the deadly environmental catastrophe confronting humankind this century.
- United Nations: Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s statement on World Water Day 2012
- United Nations: Press conference to mark World Water Day 2012
- United Nations: World Water Day 2012 – Water & Food Security
- Food and Agriculture Organization: Success in hunger fight hinges on better use of water
- International Fund for Agriculture Development: World Water Day 2012: Water and food security, two sides of the same coin
- UNESCO: World Water Development Report 2012
- U.S. Director of National Intelligence: Assessment on Global Water Security – February 2012 (PDF)