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We are facing a worsening water crisis and increasing food insecurity: a key part of the solution is hiding in plain sight

18 October 2023

Written by Stuart Orr, WWF Global Freshwater Lead, and João Campari, WWF Global Food Lead

When it comes to ending hunger and ensuring water for all, the world is way off track. We’re halfway to the 2030 deadline for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals yet the trend is heading in the wrong direction - with increasing numbers of people facing food and nutrition insecurity as well as water scarcity. Around 2.4 billion people face moderate or severe food insecurity, while half the world faces water shortages at least once per month. One thing we are not short of is ideas for how to solve these crises. But we still, somehow, miss two solutions that are absolutely crucial.


Firstly, we can’t continue to deal with the twin challenges of food and water in isolation. As the World Food Day theme reminds us, ‘Water is Food’. We cannot feed the world’s growing population without solving the water crisis. And vice versa. Increasing water scarcity, flooding and pollution pose an ever growing threat to food and nutrition security, but our unsustainable food production system is the main driver of the worsening water crisis. We need to tackle water and food together. 


Secondly, and just as critically, we must prioritise a solution that goes to the very root of both these challenges: valuing and investing in healthy freshwater ecosystems. Until now, decision makers have invariably overlooked and undervalued the rivers, lakes, wetlands and aquifers that store and supply water - and that underpin global food production. Instead they have focused solely on extracting water without appropriate management, ignoring their other values and the damage that is done in the process. Damage that is now threatening our ability to sustainably nourish  the world’s growing population.


Agriculture is by far the largest user of water, accounting for 70% of water extracted from nature for human use. But decisions on water allocation and extraction have invariably been taken with little thought for the long term health of freshwater ecosystems and for the communities that depend on them. Treating rivers as pipes for water, wetlands as ‘wastelands’ to be converted to fish farms or cropland, and lakes and aquifers as inexhaustible supplies of water for irrigation is fuelling the freshwater crisis - especially now that climate change is disrupting the hydrological system and altering rainfall patterns and river flows. As communities and countries around the world are finding out, historical decisions based on the assumption of unlimited water supplies and a stable climate are a recipe for disaster.


Prioritizing the unsustainable extraction of water for irrigated agriculture has fuelled the extraordinary expansion in global food production over recent decades. But it has come at a high cost. The widespread over-extraction of water has ravaged natural river flows and left riverine ecosystems parched and unable to function, while the excessive use of fertilisers and pesticides along with waste from industrial livestock farming has polluted waterways, causing eutrophication and dead zones in freshwater ecosystems and even out at sea. These environmental impacts are compounded by social costs when communities lose access to a safe and clean environment to sustain their livelihoods.


Across the world we see the results - from drying rivers like the Colorado and dying lakes like the Aral Sea, to depleted aquifers, saltwater intrusion into deltas and contaminated waterways. Without healthy freshwater systems, we will not have healthy food systems.


This ongoing degradation of the world’s freshwater ecosystems is undermining not only food security but also global efforts to enhance water security and human health, reduce disaster risk, tackle the climate and nature crises, and drive sustainable development. 


This is - as WWF’s new report makes clear - the High Cost of Cheap Water.


The report estimates the value of water to irrigated agriculture at U$380 billion per year - part of the US$7.5 trillion in direct economic value of water and freshwater ecosystems to households, agriculture, business and industry. But this pales in comparison to the US$50 trillion in the hidden, indirect economic values of water and freshwater ecosystems - including enhancing soil health, purifying water, reducing the impact of extreme floods and building resilience to droughts. Values that are critical for sustainable food production but are increasingly at risk.


More than 60% of irrigated cropland is already highly water stressed and climate change will only make things worse. Ironically, our food systems generate around a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, fuelling this vicious cycle. Meanwhile, critical freshwater fisheries are at risk and Asia’s hugely productive deltas are sinking and shrinking. Rainfed agriculture is also facing growing challenges as rainfall patterns become more erratic under climate change. FAO found that 10% of the world’s rainfed cropland already faces frequent drought along with 14% of the world’s pastureland.


This is the cost we are incurring  for undervaluing freshwater ecosystems. 


But it is not just food. Billions of people still lack access to clean water or proper sanitation which compromise their health. Growing water risks threaten food security and livelihoods. Extreme floods and droughts are wreaking ever increasing havoc. Freshwater biodiversity is in freefall. We’ve lost 1/3 of our remaining wetlands since 1970 and 83% of freshwater species populations over the same period - and food systems are responsible for 50% of such damage. 

Freshwater ecosystems must be firmly at the heart of our plans for the sustainable food system we need to feed the planet. We can no longer ignore the fact that rivers alone support 1/3 of global food production through irrigation, freshwater fisheries that feed 200 million people, including Indigenous Peoples and local communities across Africa, Asia and Latin America, and agriculturally rich deltas that are some of the great rice baskets of the world.

We must transform our approach and pursue nature-positive food production — with environmental stewardship guaranteeing resilient ecosystem services becoming the norm. Growing the right crops in the right places while increasing irrigation efficiency will help, as will integrating nature into agricultural lands.

Critically, we need to sustainably manage and protect our priceless groundwater resources by setting sustainable extraction limits, enhancing aquifer recharge through natural or managed replenishment, and reducing demand. And we also have to invest in natural water storage through Nature-based Solutions, which increase natural water retention by restoring wetlands, floodplains and watersheds and replenishing aquifers, but also enhance the health of soils. 

Freshwater fishery sustainability should be a priority too. We need to gather better data on catches and trends so we can professionalise management efforts, and scale up successful community approaches. Rapid aquaculture expansion needs to be carefully monitored.

Actions at the other end of the food system will have an impact too. As a species, we need to change what we eat. We must rebalance our plates to reduce the overconsumption of animal-source products and increase the consumption of sustainably produced plant-based foods – this would shift the land-use paradigm and take some pressure off the freshwater resources that current agricultural practices are destroying. This would do wonders for our physical health, too. And finally, we must dramatically reduce food loss and waste. Of all the food produced, 40% goes uneaten, left to rot on farms, lost in supply chains or simply thrown in the bin at home or in a restaurant. This represents an extraordinary waste of natural resources like freshwater and is a key driver of our ever-expanding need to produce more food.

Nourishing the world’s growing population shouldn’t cost the Earth. We can rise to the task ahead, but we’ll never be able to do it without healthy freshwater ecosystems. Now is the time for action. The world is finally waking up to water. Momentum is building. But the pace is still far too slow. Our report is a call for urgent action to protect, restore and sustainably manage our rivers, lakes, wetlands and aquifers to get us back on the sustainability track towards ending hunger and malnutrition, and delivering water for all. 

Media Contact
Abhinand Aryapratheep