World Food Day 2023: Five actions to get us closer to water and food security for all
World Food Day 2023 (October 16) focuses on the theme “Water is Life, Water is Food. Leave No One Behind.” While no one doubts that water of sufficient quantity and adequate quality is essential to sustaining all life on Earth, including us humans, water is often taken for granted. This is largely due to the fact that its role in food systems and many other vital processes—including ecosystem health, energy production, and manufacturing—remains, on the whole, invisible.
If asked, few people would know that globally, agriculture consumes around 85% of all water withdrawals and that water pollution is a major contributor to food safety concerns. This void in awareness is a serious problem as water systems are reaching a breaking point. A hotter planet needs ever more fresh water for (more) people, crops, and animals to thrive, even as per capita water resources have precipitously dropped due to population and economic growth. Both kinds of water extremes—droughts or storms accompanied by heavy rainfall and flooding—are growing more frequent and intense. And widespread pollution is leaving a growing share of water resources unfit for drinking or other essential purposes.
Without much greater attention to and support of water’s essential roles in sustaining ecosystems, communities, and agriculture, food systems will increasingly “break”—leading to further increases in undernutrition and more humanitarian crises.
But we have the capacity to reduce or head off such problems. Here are five actions that can help get us closer to water and food security for all and reduce the risk of water “breaking” food systems.
1. Strengthen efforts to retain water-dependent ecosystems, their functions and services
Water’s central role in food systems depends intimately on the health of aquatic ecosystems. Protecting and sustaining those ecosystems requires increased investment, policies, and incentives aimed at halting deforestation of tropical forests in support of local, regional, and global hydrological cycles; securing environmental flows of river systems; active management of groundwater systems; improving water quality management; and reducing water-related risks, for example, through floodplain restoration. Several of these interventions are now being scaled through the CGIAR Initiative on NEXUS Gains as well as other programs—but not at the levels needed to broadly sustain water-dependent ecosystems for food systems and nutrition.
2. Elevate the role of water in food systems through better data, institutions and investments
While countries generally have a pretty good idea of how much land agricultural production systems occupy within their borders—globally, the figure is around 40%—most national and local governments do not know how much water is withdrawn for food production, drinking water, or industrial production. Most assessments rely on calculated water use based on biophysical or technical factors and relationships. But these calculations do not typically account for locale-specific uses, and variations in precipitation and water availabilities that are increasingly common due to climate change. The indicators of the Sustainable Development Goals, meanwhile, focus either on nutrition or on water, but not on their interlinkages. To understand how much water our food systems use—from production through processing, retailing, and food consumption—requires sustained investments in monitoring a wide range of hydrological and food-related parameters worldwide. Data produced by remote sensing can support a partial assessment of water use in food systems, but this approach should be complemented by dedicated field measurements and reporting of water use. In addition to measuring water use, we also need to raise awareness and develop targeted as well as whole-public education campaigns on the importance of water in ecosystem and food system functioning.
3. Improve water management in agriculture
Both rainfed and irrigated systems play essential roles in lowering the prices of nutrient-dense foods, in helping people build incomes to afford these foods, and in expanding the diversity of foods available in local markets. However, given the huge volumes of water that agriculture consumes, we have to focus on promoting water conservation and efficiency. This requires a combination of interventions that have sometimes been tested, but are seldom prioritized and even less often scaled—including breeding crops and livestock for greater water efficiency; incentives for farmers to use less water, including through water rights and direct payments; and investments in information, technologies and capacity.
4. Reduce water and food losses beyond the farm gate, including through more sustainable diets
Water and food losses occur not only during production but also along the entire food value chain—particularly for nutrient-dense animal source foods as well as fruits and vegetables. These foods are highly perishable and require substantial post-harvest management or processing and efficient market linkages to consumption centers. Absent these things, more food spoils or is otherwise lost, and all the water used along the value chain is wasted. Similarly, food is wasted if it cannot be consumed because the water for preparation cannot be accessed or is too polluted or, when consumed, leads to diarrhea. Reducing these losses requires investments in physical infrastructure such as better roads and cold storage systems, overall improved rural water and energy access, and soft infrastructure such as more robust support to institutions and digital systems that improve smallholder farmer linkages with credit, information, and market access. At the same time, we need better assessments of the water and overall environmental costs of different diets, in order to move from the concept of healthy diets to that of sustainable healthy diets (with explicit consideration of SDG 6 on water). A first step is the increased consideration of the environmental footprint of diets in food-based dietary guidelines.
5. Explicitly address social inequities
All policies and interventions in the water for food space should explicitly consider the basic human rights to water and food and that women’s rights are human rights. Women, minorities, and other socially disadvantaged groups are less likely to be water and food secure, and more likely to be excluded from water services, information and investments. Focusing on the linkages between these human rights can help address social inequities in access to water and food, and water for food. In rural areas, multiple-use systems of water that can support drinking water, an important source of nutrients, as well as other domestic water needs, in addition to water for food production, are one intervention that can jointly address water-for-food and water security challenges of marginalized populations.
Amid climate change and other global stresses, an increasing number of joint water and food crises are leading to more conflict and migration. We don’t have to be bystanders to these unfolding crises. Taking action in five areas with proven measures can increase resilience, boosting water and food security and ecosystem health. This year’s World Food Day theme provides an entry point for joint action on water and food that we should not let go to waste.
Claudia Ringler is Director of IFPRI's Natural Resources and Resilience (NRR) Unit and co-lead of the CGIAR NEXUS Gains Initiative.