Water: A global dialogue that must continue

Tomorrow is World Water Day 2012. Its theme is “Water and Food Security”, underlining the entirely obvious but frequently misunderstood symbiosis between water and human well-being.

People with better access to water tend to be better nourished. Lack of water can be a major cause of undernourishment and famine, particularly in areas where people depend on local agriculture for food and income. Erratic rainfall and seasonal differences in water availability can cause temporary food shortages. Floods and droughts can cause intensive food emergencies. Food security only exists when all people at all times have both physical and economic access to water and to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs for an active and healthy life.

Water scarcity already affects every continent and more than 40% of the people on our planet. By 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world’s population could be living under water stressed conditions. Lack of water limits farmers’ ability to produce enough food to eat or earn a living. With population increase and economic growth, water demands for cities and for industrial purposes are outpacing the vital needs of agriculture.

Fundamental to countering the irregularity of rainfalls and to increasing food production, are improved water harvesting and retention (such as pools, dams, pits, retaining ridges, etc.), supplementary irrigation for rain-fed crops, highly efficient irrigation systems and sharing knowledge about best practices. In addition, the problem of wastage must be tackled.

Roughly 30% of the food produced worldwide – about 1.3 billion tons – is lost or wasted every year. In many developing countries, large shares of the production are lost between the farmers’ field and the market because of poor storage and transportation facilities. In developed countries, and in particular in cities, food is wasted by consumers who are not aware of, or sensitive to, the resources needed to produce it. A change in consumers’ attitudes is vital: limiting the waste means reducing the water needed to produce food.

Not all is doom and gloom. According to the United Nations, the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for access to clean water has been reached ahead of the target date of 2015. Now, 89% of the population of the world have access to improved water supplies. However, the provision of clean water is uneven and worldwide almost 800 million people still drink dirty water. 40% of those without access to improved drinking water live in sub-Saharan Africa.

While this is the first MDG to be reached, the charity Water Aid says that the other part of the same target – safe sanitation – is further off track than any other MDG. The biggest challenge for safe sanitation is India, where more than half of the population, 626 million people, do not have access to a toilet.

“Civilization has been a permanent dialogue between human beings and water,” said Paolo Lugari, founder of the ecovillage Gaviotas in Colombia. Now is not the time for silence!


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