Mubeena Iram, Green Blogger

With so considerable talk about a global water crisis, about water scarcity, about increasing competition and struggles over water, it would be easy to get the impress that Earth is running dry. You could be forgiven for wondering whether, in the not-too-distant future, there will be sufficient water to produce enough to eat and drink.

But the truth is that the world is far away from running out of water. There is land and human resources and water enough to grow food and provide drinking water for everyone. That doesn’t mean, however, that the global water crisis is imaginary. Around the world there are already severe water problems.

The problem is the quantity of water required for food production. People will need more and more water for more and more agriculture. Yet the way people use water in agriculture is the most significant contributor to ecosystem degradation and to water scarcity. Added together, these problems amount to an emergency requiring immediate attention from government institutions that make policy, from water managers, from agricultural producers—and from the rest of us, because we are all consumers of food and water.

The crisis is even more complex than it first appears to be because many policies that on the surface appear to have nothing to do with water and food make a bigger difference to water resources and food production than even agricultural and water management practices. But people who make these decisions often do not consider water to be part of them. Water professionals need to communicate these concerns better, and policymakers need to be more water-aware.

In early 2007, the Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture, which explored ways to cope with this crisis, was released. The assessment gathered research and opinions from more than 700 researchers and practitioners from around the world. They addressed these questions: How can water be developed and managed in agriculture to help end poverty and hunger, promote environmentally sustainable practices, and find a balance between food and environmental security? The Comprehensive Assessment provides a picture of how people used water for agriculture in the past, the water challenges that people are facing today, and policy-relevant recommendations charting the way forward. Food and environmental communities joined efforts to produce the assessment, which was jointly sponsored by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, the  Convention on Biological Diversity, the Consultative Group on Agricultural Research, and the  Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. (A summary of the assessment is available at and the book at

If there’s plenty of water for drinking and growing food, then what’s the crisis all about? Many in the developed world are complacent about the supply of water and food. Global food production has outpaced population growth during the past 30 years. The world’s farmers produce enough for everyone, and food is cheap. Water resources development, which has played a critical role in fueling agricultural growth, can be seen as one of humankind’s great achievements. Why isn’t the type of water resource development that served us well in the past sustainable?

For one thing, agriculture must feed another 2 to 3 billion people in the next 50 years, putting additional pressure on water resources. More than 70% of the world’s 850 million undernourished people live in rural areas, and most depend directly or indirectly on water for their livelihoods. Yet for millions of rural people, accessing enough food, enough water, or both is a daily struggle. Rain may be plentiful for some farmers, but in many places it falls when it is not needed and vanishes during drought. The Indian rural development worker Kalpanatai Salunkhe put it succinctly: “Water is the divide between poverty and prosperity.”

In addition, policies seemingly unrelated to water drive increased water use. For example, using biofuels may be a way to reduce greenhouse gases, but growing the crops to produce those demands additional water. Increased reliance on biofuels could create scarcity by pushing up agricultural water use. In India, increased biofuel production to meet 10% of its transportation fuel demand by 2030 will require an estimated 22 cubic kilometers more irrigation water, about 5% of what is currently used in Indian food production, pushing the country further into water scarcity. India can ill afford these additional water resources.

Trade has the potential to markedly reduce water use. Yet trade policies rarely if ever take water into account. As a first step, trade officials could consider the water implications of trade. Subsidies and economic incentives lead to better soil and water management. Countries set subsidy policies as an economic incentive. If farmers have access to cheaper fertilizer or water, or the prospect of higher prices for their crops, they will invest in better practices. But agricultural subsidies consider a country’s political interests (such as rural employment) rather than water. Subsidies in countries such as the United States allow cheaper food to be exported and drive down the prices of commodities such as corn and wheat. Farmers in Africa and poor countries elsewhere then have trouble competing with these artificially low prices. Local, national, and international policymakers should carefully consider the water implications of their actions along with local politics.

About the Author: Mubeena Iram is a MPhil research Student in Environmental science and Engineering at GC University, Faisalabad. She finds her interests in climate change scenarios.