Dry land and uncertain future: the impact of drought and climate change on our food chain
Among rows of cabbages, radishes and tomatoes, Mohammad Islam smiles. This orchard, his orchard, is located in the city of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, known today as a tourist centre and, historically, for being a true oasis. Its fertile soil made it possible for almost any crop to grow in the area. But that agrarian prosperity is a thing of the past. Today, water shortages are commonplace, and the cost of food production has risen alarmingly.
The question is: how has it got to this point?
The difficulties that appear in the Cox’s Bazar environment originate from several factors, but the most important are:
· Climate change, which has negatively affected water availability in the region and altered crop cycles.
· Deforestation, which has reduced the soil’s capacity to retain water.
· And the overexploitation of water resources, produced by the increase in water demand for agriculture, industry and human consumption.
The use of soils and water without considering their sustainability was a determining factor in Cox’s Bazar. However, the growth of the city’s population and its tourist boom had to be added to this. Together, these circumstances caused the degradation cycle to turn into a downward spiral with increasingly serious consequences.
And yet, Mohammad’s story is a success story. He attended an FAO-supported farmer field school, where he was encouraged to learn good agricultural practices. It was there that he got the seeds, machinery and training to start cultivating in a way that makes much more sustainable use of water. Today he has three solar panels installed by the organisation that allow him to irrigate in a sustainable way and help him reduce the cost of production by half.
Difficulty in producing food, a widespread problem
The case of this splendid area of Bangladesh is not unique. Increasing demand for water resources, climate change and land degradation have created similar problems in many other parts of the world: from the Horn of Africa and the Sahel to large parts of California, Australia and India have been entering this dramatic spiral of drought and high food prices. This is also the case in south-eastern Spain.
This situation becomes even more worrisome if we consider that by 2050 we will have twenty percent more mouths to feed, so food production will have to increase by 70 percent. What do farming families face?
The most pressing challenges are these:
1. The first obstacle that puts farms in a bind is the increase in global temperatures, which causes a change in weather patterns, thus affecting water availability and the frequency of droughts. This gives rise to a vicious circle: drought appears, water demand increases, and water resources are overexploited, which intensifies the drought. And the story begins again.
2. While this phenomenon has led to the loss of crops in many regions of the world, there is another aggravating factor: the indiscriminate felling of trees. Deforestation leads to a loss of biological biodiversity, soil degradation and a decrease in its capacity to retain water. Without this capacity, agricultural areas automatically become more vulnerable to drought.
3. Last but not least, the inadequate use of water. In general, because irrigators use it indiscriminately or do not know the needs of the crops and manage it inadequately. This is in addition to the fact that the different industrial sectors are fighting for a share of the water for their own benefit.
The great water challenge
Water is one of the world’s most precious resources and makes the Earth a planet full of life. It is essential for food security, nutrition, health, energy, biodiversity and the environment. Humanity faces great challenges in relation to this invaluable resource. On the one hand, according to FAO data, it will be necessary to increase production by 70%, and by 100% in the case of developing countries, to supply a continuously growing population. On the other hand, we cannot do so at any price. We must act bearing in mind that it is precisely agriculture that is responsible for the greatest water consumption: 70% of the planet’s freshwater, to be exact.
According to FAO, in order to achieve this goal in a sustainable manner, we must focus on the following points:
1. Producing more food with less water, for which it is necessary to invest in research to use as little water as possible, and to develop crop varieties resistant to hostile climatic conditions.
2. Building resilience in farming communities so that they can cope with potential floods and droughts, thereby strengthening food security.
3. Applying drinking water technologies that are efficient and protect the environment, within the framework of climate-smart, conservation and agroecological agriculture.
FAO’s work in the face of this challenge
To achieve the goal of sustainable and just food systems, FAO works towards sound water management and to increase the resilience of society against the threats of water scarcity.
It works to promote proactive drought and flood risk management policies; build capacity in early warning and regular hazard information; and support increased water storage to buffer against climate variability and change. One of the most efficient tools they have made available to people is AQUASTAT, the most complete and consulted source of water statistics in the world.
We need infrastructures, but we also need water governance
How do we know that water is being used equitably? Who measures how much water we can use? In addition to providing data, training and technologies such as those received by Mohammad in Bangladesh, FAO supports programmes that improve water governance for more efficient, transparent and equitable use. Specifically, it addresses water competition through the water-food-energy nexus, building on multisectoral policy dialogue and conflict resolution work.
Through its programme on groundwater governance, it focuses on the implementation of policies and institutional guidelines designed at local, national and transboundary levels. What is the objective? To promote best practices in groundwater governance as a way to achieve sustainable management of these resources.
In this way, the institution achieves the participation of stakeholders within the territories, contributing to face important shared challenges such as poverty and environmental deterioration, water security, climate resilience, food security and rural territorial development.
This is how we can all contribute
Governments must work, on average, four times faster to achieve SDG 6 on time, but alone they cannot solve this problem. Water affects everyone and we all need to take action. Individuals, families, schools, cities and all communities can make a difference. Do you already know how you can help to lower your water footprint? We’ll tell you.
· Consume less water-intensive products. You can do this by looking at water footprint labels to find out how much water was used to produce that food or by learning about how it is made.
· Reduce food waste. The food you throw away is very valuable! A lot of resources are invested to get it into your hands, including water.
· Buy agroecological food, as this type of approach promotes crop diversity, soil conservation and sustainable use of natural resources.
· Make the most of rainwater by collecting it in containers to water your plants or your vegetable garden.
· Do not let it run; use only the water necessary for your toilet and reuse it whenever possible.
You too can help fight the water crisis!
You may be interested in:
- SOLAW Report: “The State of the World’s Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture.” FAO.
- Report “The State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture”. FAO.
- AQUASTAT .FAO.