Reducing food insecurity
After decades of relative neglect, agriculture and the need to produce sufficient food are high on the global development agenda. Reasons include the recent increases in food prices, the large number of food insecure people in the world and concerns over the sustainable use of land and water resources. These problems are exacerbated by the threat of climate change and other global changes, including demographic changes, urbanisation, change forest cover, change diets, foreign land investments, accelerated production of other agricultural goods (fuel, fiber and fodder) on scarce land resources etc.
Agricultural water management plays a central role in food production and food security. On the one hand, poor water management practices contribute to depletion and degradation of land & water resources. On the other hand, improved water management plays a vital role in increasing food production and reducing food insecurity as well as supporting sustainable land and water resources development.
Water, Food & Energy
Water, food and energy form a complex web of inter-linkages. Agriculture is both energy user and energy generator. Energy generation from biofuel and hydropower are land & water-intensive and sometime compete with food production over limited land and water resources. Other energy sources, e.g. fossil fuels such as oil, coal, gas, nuclear, also have various impacts on water quantity and water quality. Nevertheless, food production is water & energy-intensive, accounting for 70% of global water use and 6% of global energy use. Energy policies and subsidies influence water use for food or energy. In other cases, food policies, subsidies and consumption patterns drive water use.
Examples of water-food-energy interactions include:
- High energy prices, concerns over GHG emissions and geo-political considerations drive the demand for biofuels. First-generation biofuels, based on crops such as sugarcane, or maize directly compete with food crops for land and water resources. Impacts of second-generation (e.g. jatropha, plant residuals) and third-generation (e.g. bio-technically designed algae) biofuels on water and land can also be enormous.
- Energy from hydropower both facilitates and hampers food production: hydropower dams are often multi-functional and reservoirs serve turbines as well as irrigated land, but because energy generation is usually of higher value than agriculture, energy gets priority over food production.
- Agriculture is water and energy intensive. For example, pumping groundwater for agriculture takes considerable amounts of energy. It is estimated that in India pumping from agricultural wells contributes 4-6% of total GHG emissions.
- Population growth and changes in diets as a result of increasing incomes and improved living standards will lead to higher agricultural water demand. For example, the production of a meat based diet typically consumes twice the amount of water as compared to a vegetarian diet. Demand for biofuels and fiber drives the demand for agricultural products further and hence increases pressure on agricultural land & water.
- Accounting for 70% of all water extracted for human purposes, agriculture is by far the biggest water user worldwide. Increasingly, water for food is linked to environmental problems (such as fragmentation and drying up of rivers, salinization, eutrophication of water bodies, degradation of wetlands) and biodiversity loss.
- Agriculture is a major contributor to GHG emissions, directly and indirectly through land use change. At the same time food production will be heavily impacted by changes in climate and increases in climate variability in particular.
- Access to water and food is skewed: over 860 million people are food insecure, while over 1 billion are overweight.
- Agriculture is both an energy user and supplier (through biofuels). The food sector accounts for 30% of global energy use and 22% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Improved agricultural water management can contribute to ‘energy and climate’ smart food production.
- While highly volatile, fossil fuel prices show a rising trend and many countries are striving to diversify energy sources. Energy generation from biofuels and hydropower has a direct effect on water and water resources and in many cases competes with food production.
Shift in thinking
To develop land & water resources in a sustainable and equitable way and in synergy with natural systems, a shift in thinking among water professionals is needed. A narrow focus on water for food production is no longer sufficient. Instead, agricultural water management in agriculture has to contribute to the triple goal of food & energy security, equitable access and environmental integrity.