Water is a basic necessity of life, yet it remains inaccessible for a large part of the world’s population. At present, almost one fifth of the global population (about 1.2 billion people) live in areas which are water scarce and a quarter live in developing countries that face water shortages. Globally the situation is getting worse due to the increase in population and the need for more water for agriculture, industry and household use to meet the needs of the increasing population. With the existing climate change scenario, it is predicted that almost half of the world population will be living in water stressed areas by 2030.
It needs to be understood that freshwater resources are limited and are fast depleting due to irresponsible use. As a means of focussing attention on the importance of freshwater and advocating for the sustainable management of freshwater resources, the United Nations General Assembly designated March 22 to be observed as World Water Day in 1993.
Each year, the World Water Day highlights a specific theme and this year’s theme is Water and Food Security. The theme is very relevant as there are growing indications for both water and food scarcity in the years to come.
To feed the burgeoning world population, an increased food growth is required. Almost one billion people live in chronic hunger and with the depleting water resources, food production is likely to suffer.
All the food from crop and livestock, fisheries and forest products requires water...a lot of water. Just imagine: it takes about 1,500 litres of water to produce one kilogram of wheat and 10 times more to produce beef. It may come as a surprise for many but the fact is that when combined all the water required for raising a cow (its feed too needs water to grow), slaughtering and processing meat it the water content for beef becomes this high. Even fisheries and aquaculture require a certain quantity and quality of water in rivers, lakes and estuaries and are therefore important water users.
The biggest share of water use is in agriculture. In fact, about 70 per cent of all water usage is in agriculture. But world’s water supply is being impacted by climate change because of changed rainfall patterns, greater droughts, melting glaciers and altered river flows; this will drastically affect agriculture, including feed and fodder for livestock. Erratic rainfall and seasonal differences in water availability can cause temporary food shortages, while floods and droughts can cause intensive food emergencies. Lack of water can be a major cause of famine and result in under-nourishment, as it limits farmers’ ability to produce enough food to eat or earn a living.
With population increase, economic growth and urbanisation, the demand for water in cities and industries is also growing at a fast rate. Attempts to meet this growing demand put pressure on both the current availability and further expansion of the irrigated area. This is besides the water required for non-food crops such as bio-fuels and fodder for livestock.
This increased competition for water further impacts the poor and vulnerable groups. Millions of small farmers, fishers and herders depend on water as one of the most important factors of production — without water they cannot make a living.
With climate change affecting water availability, there is an urgent need to find ways and means to conserve water; it also calls for better water management in agriculture. Techniques must be developed to improve water usage in the fields, so that more crop is produced using less water or crop yield per unit of water is more. This can be achieved by better control and application of irrigation water, as well as combination of rain and irrigation water wherever possible. These, combined with good agricultural practices, will ensure highest possible productivity.
Along with measures to maximise food production, dietary habits must be changed and the consumption of water-intensive food must be lessened. For example, a more vegetarian diet can be helpful as producing meat needs more water. Moreover, emphasis should be on cultivating less water intensive crops so more food is produced with less water.
Treated waste water, drainage water and desalinated water can be used for agriculture, especially in arid and semi-arid areas, after making sure that no toxic substances are present in the water. Similarly, recirculation of water in aquaculture can reduce the use of water to a great extent.
It is important to reduce food wastage. Roughly about 30 per cent (1.3billion tons) of the food produced worldwide is never eaten. It is either wasted somewhere between farmers’ field and markets due to poor storage or during transportation or ends up in garbage dumps by consumers who are not aware or do not care how important it is for the starving millions. It is not only the food that is wasted but the water used to produce it is also lost.
Conservation of water is vital as not only its resources are dwindling, but food security also depends on it.
The writer is a journalist at Dawn newspaper.