Agriculture’s Achilles’ Heel: Water Insecurity Is the Greatest Threat to Sustaining Global Food Production

The Reset the Table essay series is published weekly, describing today’s challenges to global food security and proposing U.S. government responses.

Simply put, without water there is no food. Global food and nutritional security require resilient agricultural systems, which, in turn, depend on reliable and sustainable supplies of freshwater, whether from rainfall or irrigation. It is an often-neglected dependency, and one that threatens to undermine our ability to meet our future food needs and maintain the ecosystems upon which all life depends.

Food production is the largest global consumer of freshwater worldwide, accounting for about 70 percent of all water use. As the global population peaks around 10 billion people in 2050, the need for freshwater for food is expected to increase by as much as 60 percent. In some regions, like sub-Saharan Africa, where the population is expected to double within the same time frame, the demand for increased crops and nutrient-dense foods, including milk, chicken, and beef, will more than double the need for water in regions already struggling with water scarcity. Reducing food waste, developing new protein sources, and changing diets may alleviate some of the pressure, but major gains will only come from significantly increasing yields. More often than not, this happens by expanding onto new lands—often at the expense of natural ecosystems. Many countries now recognize that the path to food security will require a significant increase in cropping intensity, an approach that includes a substantial increase in water consumption.

This comes at a time when the world’s freshwater resources are under increasing pressure from overuse, mismanagement, intersectoral competition, pollution, and the vagaries of climate change. Today, more than 30 percent of the world’s groundwater systems are under stress. For example, groundwater was key to the success of the green revolution in India, but over the ensuing decades, free electricity in Punjab and other states has resulted in over-extraction of groundwater, threatening “the goose that laid the golden egg.” Urban wastewater, chemical contamination, and agricultural and livestock runoff continue to degrade the quality of surface and groundwater resources. Increasing demands for hydropower put crucially important fisheries at risk and can limit sediment flows important for maintaining recession agriculture. Climate change is already impacting the distribution, timing, and intensity of rainfall and snow events. For many agricultural regions, earlier snowpack thawing will mean less water is available during the growing season, while higher temperatures will increase water demand from crops. Many countries will lack the infrastructure to capture, treat, or manage water to ensure the availability of supplies. In these cases, farmers will become increasingly water insecure and have to rely more on variable supplies and water of poor quality—increasing the risks to health and livelihoods. As competition for scarce water resources grows, so will disputes over shared waters, exacerbating conflicts and further marginalizing the most vulnerable.

Estimates vary, but models suggest that by 2050 more than half the world’s population will be living in water-stressed regions. Many of these regions are already relatively food insecure. This will threaten the very foundation of global food production.

There is a way forward.

While the percentages above are helpful, they are the wrong measure for assessing progress. The debate should not be about how much water we use, but how we use and sustain it. We must protect the water that is available and bring demand in-line with renewable supplies. This is particularly true for groundwater, which can play a critical role in ensuring the resilience of our food systems.

"The debate should not be about how much water we use, but how we use and sustain it."

There are promising examples of sustainable water use. Nebraska is one the highest agricultural producing states in the United States. Development and investment in advanced water management and irrigation technologies, improvements in crop and livestock breeding, and better management has significantly reduced actual water consumption over the past several decades. Investments in the enabling environment—especially on roads, power, research, capacity development, and institutions—were critical. Nebraska was one of the first states to address groundwater challenges, implementing an innovative governance model, which, among other things, devolved responsibilities for setting and enforcing rules to the local level.

Many developing countries are looking to agriculture to meet the food requirements of a growing population, increase rural prosperity, and provide viable livelihoods for those living in rural areas. Improved management of groundwater, rainwater harvesting, and investments in irrigation technologies have increased crop production and reduced water use. Other countries like Morocco, and more recently Rwanda and Ethiopia, have made significant gains, but the intensification of agriculture across sub-Saharan Africa still lags behind much of the world. This low level of production means a less efficient use of resources per unit of production, especially water, in both crops and livestock.

Avoiding Achilles’ Fate

As the myth goes, Achilles, the greatest of Greece’s warriors, was brought down by an arrow to the heel—perhaps the last place we might look for a vulnerability. So it goes with food and water. Domestically and internationally, our approaches to increasing food production have sidestepped perhaps the most critical issue to sustainably increasing food production—water.

The situation will be especially acute in the regions of the developing world that are still food-insecure, are growing quickly, have historically underinvested in agriculture and water, are especially susceptible to climate change, and are already relatively water-short. Continuing along a pathway of poor water management and expanding low-productivity agriculture jeopardizes both water and long-term food security and reduces resiliency.

"Improving water security, particularly with regards to food and agriculture, should be recognized as critical to achieving the United States’ overall health, economic growth, and security goals."

Steps have been taken. The recent integration of water into the Bureau of Resilience and Food Security at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is an important first step. It recognizes the problem and provides an opportunity to better integrate water concerns into U.S. food security plans and strategies. That said, the administration and Congress should step up to ensure that water security and water for food are core elements of broader domestic and international plans and strategies. Water, and water’s role in food security, should be explicitly recognized in the National Security Strategy—both to protect U.S. food supplies and reduce fragility in partner countries.

Improving water security, particularly with regards to food and agriculture, should be recognized as critical to achieving the United States’ overall health, economic growth, and security goals and as a tool for promoting trust and cooperation. Congress should reauthorize a new version of the Water for the World Act that brings it more in line with the U.S. Global Water Strategy and that fully recognizes the importance of water security to sustaining human health, economic development, and peace and security. Resources appropriated under the Act should allow for investments in sound water resources management that support food, energy, and peace and security. Programs to increase food security, including those under the Global Food Security Act, should be designed with consideration for local water needs and coordinated with programs under the World Water Act and the U.S. Global Water Strategy.

Programs to increase food security should:

  • Promote and strengthen local institutional arrangements to sustainably manage water and land resources and implement government reforms focused on facilitating, strengthening, and sustaining community-led efforts for water and food security.

  • Support entrepreneurship of women and men farmers entrepreneurship and to catalyze private sector engagement to sustainably scale water management practices and technologies.

  • Strengthen the capacity of partner countries to measure, model, and forecast water resources and water use, including support for data collection and analysis on critical indicators that will drive improvements in water and agricultural management.

  • Invest in infrastructure and natural systems to ensure the availability of water resources of the appropriate quantity, quality, and timing.

  • Within the USAID Country Development Cooperation Strategies, deliberately link, co-plan, and co-develop water security and food security plans, projects, and policies.

  • Support international organizations such as CGIAR and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations that can build global capacity and knowledge and fund scientific research and outreach efforts to enhance water management in food and nutrition.

The greatest threat to global food security is water insecurity. Expanding food production will be critical to sustaining human health, economic productivity, and overall peace and security. Integrating water into our efforts to ensure food security is a necessary step to ensure we will meet our future food needs. This isn’t rocket science. Local indigenous solutions and new technologies can ensure the protection of our water resources and the production of more food from the limited resources we have. What we need is the political commitment to developing holistic solutions than can ensure our long-term food security—solutions that include water.

Peter McCornick is the executive director of the Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute at the University of Nebraska. Aaron Salzberg is the director of the Water Institute at the University of North Carolina, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, and formerly the special coordinator for water at the U.S. Department of State.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Executive Director, Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute at the University of Nebraska
Director, Water Institute at the University of North Carolina