Water scarcity = food insecurity? Think again

28 July, 2011 by (comments)

Award-winning team didn’t go with the flow

As the world population edges closer to 7 billion this year, on-target for a projected peak of 9 billion by 2050, we won’t just need more food. We’ll need more water, in order to grow more food.


Actually, not quite. The prevailing wisdom – that population pressure will trigger a global water crisis – was challenged by a team of scientists, including three from CIAT, back in 2009, following a major study for the CGIAR’s Challenge Program for Water and Food. In fact, the team will receive the Water International Best Paper Award later this year, in recognition of the study’s originality, innovation, technical quality, and its overall contribution to water resources management.

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When it was published, Water, Food and Livelihoods in River Basins made more than a bit of a splash. It argued that although agriculture is the dominant water user in the world, it doesn’t follow that growing more food will result in greater pressure on water resources. Neither does water scarcity necessarily equate to food insecurity. Look at Israel. Look at Bangladesh.

The study uncovered great potential for increasing “water productivity” in agriculture – the conversion rate of water into food. Rather than a need for more water, there is a need for more effective policies to improve access to water, and increase the efficiency of water use. These should also reflect the valuable environmental services provided by river basins, and encourage the development of policies to protect them. Then agricultural systems can respond to rising demand – as they have up to now.

So while there are certainly areas where water scarcity exerts high pressure on food production and livelihoods, any Malthusian gloom is misplaced – at least for the time being. If we use water more efficiently, there will be enough.

The award-winning team includes then-CIAT scientist Simon Cook and CIAT’s Meike Andersson and Emeritus Myles Fisher, together with co-authors Jorge Rubiano and Mark Giordano. The Water International Best Paper Award will be presented at a special International Water Resources Association ceremony at the XIV World Water Congress in Brazil, in September 2011.

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