Food Security Requires Water Security

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Closely linked to the challenge of feeding nine billion by 2050 is the growing problem of global water security.  Without adequate water supplies, the world will not be able to produce enough food to feed the growing, and increasingly affluent, global population.  Our use — and misuse — of water has many parallels to the problem of global food waste; and both problems stem from complacency and misperceptions of abundance.  Globally, we waste more than 30% of all food produced annually; in part due to low food prices and overproduction in a system geared to overstock shelves with excessive quantities of myriad items around the clock.  Picky consumers expect vast selection and perfect produce at all times.  Similarly, to individuals in large parts of the world, water is essentially considered to be a very low cost, and limitless, resource.  We expect that when we turn on the tap, we will always get the clean water we need.  Disruptions are too rare to be considered, nor do they leave a lasting impression to motivate behavior change.  Yet with artificially low pricing, we use excessive amounts of water in agricultural, industrial, and residential applications and deplete aquifers faster than they can be naturally replenished.  With ineffective controls and cost systems to minimize pollution, coupled with aging water infrastructure in need of massive reinvestment, we are putting rivers and groundwater supplies at great risk.  We simply have not given water the extraordinary attention that it deserves, as indicated by a quote from Steven Colbert in Robert Glennon’s work, Unquenchable:  “If the human body is 60 percent water, why am I only two percent interested?”  Why indeed.

Exacerbating this flawed (and broad) thinking is the problem of short-term versus long-term focus.  The World Economic Forum notes that demand for freshwater will exceed supply by over 40% by 2030 — just over fifteen years from now.  In that brief window, hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure investments, coupled with conservation efforts and policy & pricing changes, are needed.  Complacency is not an option, nor is the misguided faith that the water taps will never run dry.

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