Addressing Water Scarcity in Food Systems: Challenges and Solutions
What is water scarcity and how can we address it?
On the 22nd of March, we celebrated World Water Day, and this year the focus was all about accelerating change to solve the water and sanitation crisis. At present, in fact, we are seriously off-track to meet Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6: water and sanitation for all by 2030.
Nowadays, still billions of people and countless schools, businesses, healthcare centers, farms and factories don’t have the safe water and toilets they need. And, if anything, in the last few years, the situation has even worsened. I don’t want to be grim, but I believe that access to water is going to soon be a problem for us all and we need to do something now.
Water Scarcity in a nutshell
Water is a precious and finite resource. But we don’t treat it like such and for a simple reason, we open the tap and it’s there, at all times, and we don’t even pay much money for it. A precious thing is usually rare and very expensive. So, it’s very difficult to consider water something we might not have accessibility to.
It’s very different in other continents, like Africa, where they’ve been dealing forever with water scarcity. As Africa’s population continues to grow and climate change continues to reduce access to safe water, it is predicted that by 2025, close to 230 million Africans will be facing water scarcity, and up to 460 million will be living in water-stressed areas. Water scarcity in Africa is due to economic and physical reasons. Economic scarcity falls under those institutional shortcomings such as lack of planning, investments and infrastructure while physical scarcity happens when physical access to water is difficult and it’s a direct result of climate change, droughts, and changes in weather patterns.
In the Western world, in our days at least, we’ve never experienced the economic scarcity that is affecting other continents but we have been experiencing in the last few years what physical scarcity is and we find ourselves quite unprepared to deal with it.
What factors are contributing to water scarcity?
The factors contributing to water scarcity are many and all related to one another. We can isolate a few but they are all part of a complex system that needs to be approached as a whole.
The major factors that really stand out are:
- Climate Change is a very comprehensive word that refers to long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns. Global warming is exacerbating both water scarcity and water-related extreme events (such as floods and droughts), as rising temperatures disrupt precipitation patterns and the entire water cycle. Water and climate change are inextricably linked.
- Water waste. Italy is unfortunately the leader in Europe in wasting water due particularly to dilapidated pipes. According to data from the Italian National Institute of Statistics, more than 40% of the water that flows through Italian pipes is lost in transit. In a third of the country's main cities, the loss rate even exceeds 45%.
- Animal Agriculture. Factory farms use significant amounts of freshwater to raise, feed, and slaughter animals—so much of it that animal agriculture accounts for nearly 20% of freshwater use globally. In the US alone, a whopping 60% of freshwater is used just for growing crops like corn, soy, and other grains often used in animal feed that require about 43 times more water to grow than feed like grass or roughage that animals could access if they were allowed to graze. Central US has exceeded the regional planetary boundary for freshwater use due to livestock.
As we are witnessing in all our countries, persistent droughts - in Italy we are missing 50 days of rain - worsened by climate change, are forcing farmers all over the world to heavily rely, as never before, on irrigated water from sources like rivers and lakes. We are seeing this very well in Northern Italy where rivers like Po and lakes like Lago di Garda, already affected by the scarce snowfalls of last winter, are threatening the yields of the crops of the Po valley.
What can we do to fix water scarcity?
Obviously, there is no easy fix but I believe that we can do something collectively and individually to tackle this huge crisis.
- Drastically reduce your animal protein intake. Meat production requires a much higher amount of water than vegetables. According to the UK's Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME), According to the UK's Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME), to produce 1kg of meat requires between 5,000 and 20,000 liters of water whereas to produce 1kg of wheat requires between 500 and 4,000 liters of water.
- Put in place good soil management practices like cover crops, crop rotations and minimum tillage to allow the soil to retain the nutrients and moisture needed to grow healthy crops. A healthy soil doesn't require as much water compared to the compacted and dry soils typical of intensive agriculture.
- Reduce water waste through an improved irrigation system. The irrigation system as it is structured in Italy, for example, is unsustainable and detrimental to the soil. The recommendation would be to shift from a gravity irrigation system which is very wasteful, to a drip irrigation system which uses pressure to control the amount of water and thus limiting the loss of both water and nutrients.
- Be mindful. You might not think about it too much but water is a finite resource and there are many ways to avoid water waste in our households. I won’t list them because you know them already.
In Northern Italy there are already few municipalities that are supplied water through water tanks. The situation is dire and needs immediate attention and a prompt response. As always, you can start doing your part.