UN warns of possible problems with water supplies in 2050

Sep 23, 2015 Posted by:  

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Water Council (WWC) warn that by 2050 the access to water in many regions of the world could be significantly reduced which would threaten food security and livelihoods of a big number of people. In the face of these predictions it is essential to change policies and increase necessary investments, including climate change adaptation measures.

Even though it is estimated that in 2050 world water resources will remain sufficient for the global population, which is supposed to reach 9 billion people by then, the continuing overconsumption, environmental degradation and the impact of climate change will lead to problems with the access to water in many of the planet's poorest regions. This is the main conclusion of the new report prepared by FAO and WWC. The document, titled "Towards a water and food secure future”, was presented in April this year in Daegu and Gyeongbuk in the South Korea during the VII World Water Forum, which is the largest international event aimed at finding joint solutions to the main water challenges in the world.

The authors of the report call on the international community to implement appropriate policies and investments, both by the public and private sectors, to ensure sustainable food production which would also allow to protect water resources. Without such actions, the efforts aimed at reducing poverty, increasing incomes and ensuring food security for the millions of people in the global South countries will become increasingly difficult.

"Food and water security are inextricably linked. We believe that by developing local approaches and making the right investments, world leaders can ensure that there will be sufficient water volume, quality and access to meet food security in 2050 and beyond," said Benedito Braga, President of the World Water Council, on the occasion of the launching of the paper. "Agriculture has to follow the path of sustainability and not the one of immediate profitability," added Braga.

"In an era of accelerated changes unparalleled to any in our past, our ability to provide adequate, safe and nutritious food sustainably and equitably is more relevant than ever. Water, as an irreplaceable element of achieving this end, is already under pressure by increasing demands from other uses, exacerbated by weak governance, inadequate capacities, and underinvestment," pointed out FAO Deputy Director-General Natural Resources, Maria Helena Semedo. "This is an opportune time to re-visit our public policies, investment frameworks, governance structures and institutions. We are entering the post-2015 development era and we should mark it with solid commitments," she added.

Water and agriculture

According to FAO estimates, by 2050 around 60 percent more food - and even up to 100 percent in the global South countries - will be needed to feed the world. This means added pressure on the water supplies which will be required be the world's agriculture in order to meet the growing demand for food. Already now agriculture is the largest user of water globally, accounting in many countries for around two-thirds or more of the water supplies drawn from rivers, lakes and aquifers.

Even with growing urbanization, in 2050 much of the global population and most of the poor will continue to earn their living in agriculture. Yet, as the report notes, the agricultural sector will face the reduction of the available water due to a competing demand from industry and cities. In these circumstances, farmers, and especially smallholders, will have to find new ways to increase their output using limited land and water resources.

Currently, water scarcity affects more than 40 percent of people in the world and this proportion is likely to increase to two thirds by 2050. This is largely due to overconsumption of water in agriculture. For example in large areas of South and East Asia, in the Near East, North Africa and North and Central America, more groundwater is already used than can be replenished naturally. Additionally, in some regions intensive agriculture, industrial development and expanding cities are responsible for polluting water sources.

Policy changes and new investments

As underlined by FAO and WWC, changing the situation is still possible. In their report they call on governments to help farmers so that they could boost food production using increasingly limited water resources and better manage risks connected with water scarcity. All this will require a combination of public and private investments as well as providing farmers with the necessary knowledge.

It is essential also to solve numerous problems connected with the degradation and waste of water resources. Additionally, the water rights must be allocated in just and inclusive ways. The report highlights in particular the need to guarantee farmers with the access to land and water as well as financial resources in ways which enhance the role of women, who in Africa and Asia are responsible for a big part of the agricultural production.

Addressing climate change

The authors of the document warn that the consequences of climate change, including unusual rainfall and temperature patterns as well as more frequent extreme weather events, such as droughts and cyclones, will have a growing impact on agriculture and especially water resources.

Mountain regions provide up to 80 percent of global water supplies, but the ongoing retreat of glaciers due to changing climate threatens the existence of those resources in the future. Forests, on the other hand, not only use water but also provide it - at least one third of the world's largest cities draw a big portion of their drinking water from forested areas. This shows how important it is to increase efforts to protect forested and mountain areas where the majority of the world's freshwater supplies originates.

The report calls for the implementation of policies and investments aimed at enhancing climate change adaptation both at the watershed and households levels. This includes, among other things, improving water storage infrastructure, increasing water capture and reuse as well as expanding research which can help small-scale farmers build more resilient food production systems.

The full document is available here.

Source: UN

Photo credit: Gerardo Pesantez / World Bank (Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Last Modified: Sep 28, 2015