Water Risks to the Global Food System


Water Risks to the Global Food System


Over seventy ( 70 ) % of all the water in the world is taken from rivers and groundwater is used for agriculture. Achieving food security requires water security. But there is little visibility on the vulnerabilities of the food system amplified by water risks around the world. New tools are being developed to address this, including Aqueduct Food by the World Resource Institute (WRI).

Charles Iceland, director of global and national water initiatives at WRI, , to learn more about how policymakers and businesses can best use the tool.

He explains that “if those sources are depleted, agriculture is no longer viable and may have to be cut back long-term to an amount consistent with average rainfall. During times of drought, crop yields can fall, or crops can fail altogether”. He fears what might happen if water scarcity hit multiple large-scale food production centers simultaneously, a potential global crisis he refers to as “multiple breadbasket failures”.

Agricultural water withdrawal as a percentage of total renewable water resources is featured in the Food Sustainabilty Index under the sustainable agriculture pillar.

Developed by The Economist Intelligence Unit with the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition Foundation, the index ranks the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt lowest within this indicator, which is perhaps explained by the level of water scarcity in the region.

Along with growing water demand, climate change and pollution also threaten the availability of water resources, posing a further risk to food security and sustainability. Feeding a growing global population requires an integrated approach to make the food system more productive and secure. But while the need for transformation is clear, implementing change is challenging without the right tools. This inspired Mr Iceland to find a way to contribute to a more food-stable world.

A view from the top

Mr Iceland developed Aqueduct Food to enable users to cross-reference global food production, consumption and trade with water risks, allowing them to then identify vulnerabilities in the global food system.

The tool is based on a global food model from the International Food Policy Research Institute and integrated with a range of indicators for water risks including weather patterns, population and trade. Users can view the severity of various agricultural water risks on a map by crop type and method of cultivation either irrigated or rainfed.

Mr Iceland believes the tool will be broadly used by different groups. Development aid agencies can use it to help focus efforts to address food and water security challenges. Development banks can allocate funds to areas most at risk. Food companies can mitigate supply chain risks. But perhaps most exciting is its potential contribution towards the work of international policymakers.

Informing integrated policy

Aqueduct Food is designed to “integrate policy-making both geographically and across various natural resources (water, land, food)”. According to Mr. Iceland, this “will help policymakers identify water-related risks to global food production, and thereby help minimise global food insecurity”.

For instance, Aqueduct Food can be used to develop national food self-sufficiency policies, a typical approach to increase food security. Often, Mr Iceland observes, many countries with inadequate water resources tend to “trade one insecurity for another” and the tool can help to mitigate that.

He points to Syria as an example where investment in infrastructure for irrigated agriculture proved to be unsustainable, due to a lack of rainfall in the region over time. Therefore, Mr. Iceland explains that while “Syria thought it was creating food security, it really wasn’t because in the process it created water insecurity and water is essential to growing food”.

Furthermore, water shortages can lead to conflict. During last years Water Summit in Budapest, Raed Abu Al-Soud, Jordan’s minister of water and irrigation, warned that “a thirsty nation is an aggressive nation,” reiterating the need to prevent water crises for peace.

Ultimately, it is hoped that insight tools such as Aqueduct Food provide will help shape agricultural production plans, investment in infrastructure and integrated policy development. Aqueduct Food delivers something that has not been available thus far: a view of water-related risks to the global food system. Mr Iceland clarifies that the intention is “to avoid a problem of heightened food vulnerabilities and stranded agricultural assets in the future.” He hopes that by disseminating this tool publicly, various officials across the food system can make informed decisions to ensure both water security and food sustainability.


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