Why Water Scarcity Means Food Scarcity

By Andy Wales, SVP of Sustainable Development, SABMiller

The Chinese middle class is already larger than the entire population of the United States. Africa is not too far behind with a third of its population – nearly 350 million people – having now joined its social middle ranks.

This is good news. The leap forward in quality of life for so many millions is something to celebrate. But, we still only have one planet to satisfy the demand of the growing middle classes to buy, drive and eat more.

Greater social mobility also means greater demand for water. An increase in national income is linked with a country’s access to a secure and safe water supply. Security of supply and the stability it brings is critical for businesses to flourish. Clean water also brings with it the economic as well as human benefit associated with improved health. And water security is fundamental in the provision of another pillar of economic development: adequate food supply.

To grow food at the volumes we need to feed the world’s increasing population, and support their improving quality of life, requires a lot of water. This year’s World Water Week in Stockholm is tackling this conundrum: the nexus between water scarcity and food security. Currently over 70 percent of fresh water withdrawals are for the production of food. The growing number of mouths to feed combined with changing lifestyles and diets means that unless there are significant changes in how we produce and consume, our farmers will have to increase production by about 70 percent by 2050. Some straightforward ‘back of envelope’ maths tells us – that’s a problem.

On top of this, climate change is impacting crop yields. Scientists have found that over the last 25 years, the growth in yields has fallen by 10-20 percent in some locations.

Rajasthan is one of India’s driest states and local communities dependent on groundwater extraction have seen significant drops in the aquifer level. But here as elsewhere, there is a solution and it does not have to be technologically complex or prohibitively costly. By employing an age-old technology, a small-scale dam which ‘impounds’ monsoon rains, the depleted underwater aquifer has been recharged. The groundwater level has risen by 18 metres. In Taung, South Africa, helping small-scale farmers to use soil moisture measurement, leak detection, irrigation scheduling and drought-resistant strains has boosted the profitability of barley crops, using less water.

Water has been described as the next big thing, the next ‘carbon’, for many years. International agreement on tackling climate change and carbon has been characterised by inertia. There has also been a good deal of global debate around water stewardship, too, but meaningful change has to happen on the ground. In a way, it is fortunate that for water the answers lie to a large extent at the local level. Each watershed is different, requiring a unique approach.

Near Bogota, large areas of land have been cleared of native vegetation for farming. Without indigenous species which trap water and protect the soil on the steep-sided valleys, large amounts of soil are running off into the river basin and polluting the water supply of Bogota. Only by bringing business, NGOs and the local water utility together at this local level is there now a unique, local solution. The partnership, which is driven by The Nature Conservancy, incentivises farmers in the region to protect the ecosystem – for example, cattle ranchers are given better pastures for their herds, improving their milk yields but also moving them off the steepest slopes. The investment of roughly US$1.5m per year certainly pays off as overall it will save Bogota around US$ 4.5m in water treatment costs.

So there are solutions to the increasing demands placed on our supplies of fresh water and collaborative action is the way forward. And business must be part of this. Water is a shared resource and a shared risk. We know, from our own experience across the globe, that it is both important and possible to build the business case for mitigating water risk.

To coincide with World Water Week, SAB Miller has produced a short animation which looks at the inter-relationship between water, food, and energy from a development/sustainability perspective.

Because of the dynamic interaction between these elements, successfully addressing the triple challenge of water stress, food security and energy supplies means taking a holistic view and balancing the many competing demands. This animation takes a fresh look at the Water/Food/Energy ‘Nexus.’

Andy Wales is Senior Vice President Sustainable Development for SABMiller plc, one of the world’s largest brewers. He leads the group’s approach to prioritising economic, social and environmental issues within the group’s strategies and business plans, including risks such as water scarcity and opportunities such as promoting local economic growth through smallholder farming. He also leads stakeholder engagement for the group.

image: Jim Murphy via Flickr cc (some rights reserved)

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