Davao City, 3 November 2009. Water crisis – too much or too less – hog the headlines of newspapers every now and then. But beyond safe drinking and sanitation, water plays a critical role in food production. If Filipinos find themselves very short of food in the near future, blame water shortage for the situation.
“Water for agriculture is critical for food security,” pointed out Dr. Mark W. Rosegrant, a senior research fellow at the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
Some 40 million people had been pushed into hunger in 2008, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). And their number is increasing each year. “For millions of people in developing countries, eating the minimum amount of food every day to live an active and healthy life is a distant dream,” deplored FAO Assistant Director-General Hafez Ghanem.
The food crisis is compounded by millions of wealthier people in developing countries turning away from traditional rice and cereal-based diets to western dairy and meat-based foods that require more water.
“The agriculture of tomorrow will need a lot more water,” observed Colin Chartres, the director-general of the World Bank-funded International Water Management Institute (IWMI).
Given that one liter of water is used to produce one calorie of food, the world will need up to 6,000 cubic kilometers of additional water every year to feed another 2.5 billion people 2,500 calories per day. “This is almost twice what we use today and is not sustainable,” Chartres warned.
A combination of very little new land left for cultivation, an increasingly unpredictable climate and water supplies stretched to the limit means the only realistic option to feed people in the future will be better management of existing water supplies, according to the report published jointly by FAO and IWMI.
“There is no new land or water to develop so we have to make more use of what we have. Existing irrigation systems are often 50 to 70 years old. They are leaking and water is evaporating. We urgently need a new generation of irrigation. That is the only way we are going to feed everyone,” Chartres pointed out.
“If we don’t (invest) we will see food crises like the one in 2007 repeated over and again. That was an early warning. If nothing is done, you are going to get an increase in social unrest, migration and a fertile ground for terrorism,” he added.
Since the demise of communism and the rise of the free market, farmers have increasingly opted to take irrigation into their own hands, mainly using cheap Chinese-made pumps. Tens of millions of smallholders have invested in their own pumps so that they can extract water from shallow aquifers whenever they choose.
Governments have been unable to regulate this practice, which has led to major exploitation of water resources. For instance, water tables in parts of India and China have dropped catastrophically in the last few years. “It’s a trend that will become more common. The consequence will be more farmer suicides, hardship and collapsing enterprises,” said Chartres.
The Philippines will not be spared from such consequence. Studies have shown that agriculture has the highest demand of all water use with 85 per cent while the other sectors – industry and domestic – have a combined demand of only 15 per cent.
“With the demand for water growing in all three categories, competition among sectors is intensifying, with agriculture almost always losing,” says Lester Brown, president of Washington, D.C.-based Earth Policy Institute. “Agriculture is by far the biggest consumer of water worldwide," adds the International Rice Research Institute.
Within the agricultural sector, crop production receives the greatest attention, but fish and livestock also require water.
“Animals (including fish) consume a relatively small volume of water in comparison to crop consumption and can produce a very high value of output,” says Dr. Ruth Meinzen-Dick, a development sociologist who has done extensive research on water management. “As worldwide demand for animal products increases, the importance of supplying water for aquaculture and livestock is also likely to increase.”
Water covers over 70 per cent of the earth’s surface and is a major force in controlling the climate by storing vast quantities of heat. About 97.5 per cent of all water is found in the ocean and only the remaining 2.5 per cent is considered fresh water. Unfortunately, 99.7 per cent of that fresh water is unavailable, trapped in glaciers, ice sheets, and mountainous areas.
Water is drawn in two fundamental ways: from wells, tapping underground sources of water called aquifers; or from surface flows - that is, from lakes, rivers, and man-made reservoirs. Groundwater is recharged by rain and seepage from rivers.
“Water is the most precious asset on Earth,” says Dr. Sandra Postel, director of the Massachusetts-based Global Water Policy Project. “It is the basis of life.” As the Koran puts it: “By means of water, we give life to everything.”
Ideally, a person should have at least 50 liters of water each day to meet basic needs – for drinking, food preparation, cooking and cleaning up, washing and personal hygiene, laundry and house cleaning.
Dr. Postel believes water problems will be alongside climate change as a threat to the human future, and global warming will worsen water problems. “Although the two are related, water has no substitutes,” she explains. “We can transition away from coal and oil to solar, wind and other renewable energy sources. But there is no transitioning away from water to something else.”
Meanwhile, the FAO-IMWI report urges countries to repair and modernize irrigation systems and use better drip-fed farming. The UN expects the world to have an extra 2.5 billion mouths to feed within 40 years, most of them in developing countries.
“Dig the well before you get thirsty,” cautions the old Chinese proverb.