There is hope for ensuring the world has enough clean, fresh water in the near future, despite an ever-increasing world population that requires more water and food, a new report from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs says. But the task is enormous.
“Technological advancement creates a sense that no problem is too big for our collective innovation potential as long as we invest appropriately in research and development,” the report says. But it also warns “we must not ignore or diminish the need for collective action to solve structural and often systemic problems. We also must not underestimate the urgency of the challenge.”
“The world is running out of clean, fresh water to feed — and nourish — a growing global population,” the report says. About 2.4 billion people, or more than a third of the global population, live in water-scarce regions, and projections are that by 2050, over half the people on the planet could live in areas where the demand for water exceeds the supply, or the quality of that water restricts is use.
Global water demand “is generally projected to increase by 30 to 50 percent by 2050,” the report says, observing, “Farmers will need to improve their food production capacity to meet the needs of the growing populace, while expanding urban areas will also demand more water from a steadily decreasing supply."
Crops and livestock use the most water of any sector — 71 percent — followed by industrial use (20 percent), and then domestic uses, including drinking water and sanitation (9 percent), the report says.
Agriculture “is expected to remain the largest user of freshwater resources in all regions in the foreseeable future, despite rapidly growing industrial and domestic demand. Competition for water among its many users is only going to intensify.”
The stakes are high. “Failure to treat water as a strategic, valuable, and limited resource will accelerate water insecurity, even for historically water-secure populations, and may threaten the economic and political security of nations, including the United States,” the report says.
The report calls for “bold action,” recommending federal agencies do a better job of coordination on water issues. It also urges the Trump administration to coordinate “a significant challenge fund for water scarcity issues that encourages private-sector innovation” and support more interdisciplinary research targeting the intersection of food, water and nutrition.
In particular, the report recommends the Department of Agriculture look at the use of artificial intelligence and expand its National Agriculture Imagery Program to solve major development issues such as water resource scarcity.
Climate change threatens agricultural water, "as greater variability in precipitation and increases in temperature make supplies increasingly unreliable," the report says. "Water challenges will likely be felt most intensely in regions with the least resources to adapt to it. Smallholder farmers, who largely rely on rainfall for their water supply, are at the greatest risk of total crop failure in the face of increased climate variability."
The report also highlights the importance of global feeding efforts, recommending a permanent authorization for the United States’ Feed the Future program.
“A permanent authorization for global food and nutrition efforts remains the most important action the U.S. government can take to move the United States and the world toward a more food-secure future,” the report says.
The report takes a measured stance on any attempts to encourage dietary changes. “In high meat-consuming countries, diets that shift consumption away from meats and cereals toward higher-value foods have the potential for reducing water use over time,” the report says. But for many low- and middle-income countries in Africa and Asia, “increased meat and dairy consumption has strong nutritional benefits.”
Nevertheless, the report recommends the administration work with the private sector and the public “to design programs or innovations that build demand for nutritious diets.”
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