ENVIRONMENT: When the wells run dry

The warning is out! It’s lack of water, not shortage of land, that will be the primary cause of the looming food crisis in the Philippines and in other parts of the world, according to most experts.

“Water for agriculture is critical for food security,” points out Dr. Mark W. Rosegrant, a senior research fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based International Food Policy Research Institute.

“The link between water and food is strong,” explains Lester R. Brown, president of Earth Policy Institute, also based in Washington, D.C. “We drink, in one form of another, nearly 4 liters of water per day. But the food we consume each day requires at least 2,000 liters to produce, 500 times as much!”

In the Philippines, agriculture has the highest demand of all water use with 85%; other sectors – industry and domestic – have a combined demand of the remaining 15%. “With the demand for water growing in all three categories, competition among sectors is intensifying with agriculture almost always losing,” Brown assumes.

Today, an estimated 40% of agricultural products and 60% of the world’s grain are grown on irrigated land. Take the case of rice, the staple food of Filipinos. It takes about 3,000 liters of water to produce one kilogram of rice, reports the Laguna-based International Rice Research Institute.

In his book, “Food Revolution,” author John Robbins said that 23 gallons of water is needed to produce one pound of lettuce, 23 gallons for one pound of tomatoes, 24 gallons for one pound of potatoes, 33 gallons for one pound of carrots, and 49 gallons for one pound of apples.

Meat production also consumes a lot of water. According to Worldwatch Institute, one third of the freshwater used in agriculture is used to grow the grain fed to livestock like cattle, chickens and swine.

It’s not only livestock but fish, too, require water. “Animals, including fish, consume a relatively small volume of water in comparison to crop consumption and can produce a very high value of output,” says Dr. Ruth Meinzen-Dick, a development sociologist who has done an extensive research on water management. “As worldwide demand for animal products increases, the importance of supplying water for aquaculture and livestock is also likely to increase.”

It must be recalled the food crisis in the past was curbed as a result of Green Revolution. “As a key component in Green Revolution technologies based on fertilizer application and the use of high yield varieties, improved water management has helped boost productivity – or output of ‘crop per drop’ – by an estimated 100% since 1960,” the Taipei-based Food and Fertilizer Technology explained in a statement.

But those innovations are no longer feasible today. “Farmers could no longer use the same strategies for raising food output which has fed millions in recent years,” Professor Jeffrey Sachs told participants of the Sustainable Development Summit held in India almost a decade ago.

Since agricultural revolution, the amount of land under irrigation has tripled. In recent years, however, most countries in Asia, for instance, have reached the limits of water supplies. “When water becomes short, rural farmers often find it difficult to maintain food supplies,” the UN Population Fund pointed out.

Water is drawn in two fundamental ways: from wells, tapping underground sources of water called aquifers; or from surface flows – that is, from lakes, rivers, and man-made reservoirs. Groundwater is recharged b rain and seepage from rivers.

Water is more important than those gold and diamonds. “Water is the most precious asset on Earth,” says Dr. Sandra Postel, director of the Massachusetts-based Global Water Policy. “It is the basis of life.”

Ideally, a person should have at least 50 liters of water each day to meet basic needs – for drinking, food preparation, cooking and cleaning up, washing and personal hygiene, laundry and house cleaning.

Unlike in the past, it’s not oil that people will go into war. “Water is not like oil: there is no substitute,” Dr. Rosegrant said. “If we continue to take it for granted, much of the earth is going to fun short of water or food – or both.” In either case, he added, “the poor will suffer most.”

One of the reasons why the Philippines is facing water shortage is due to its increasing number of people. Based on projections made by the Commission on Population, the country will be home to 107.19 million Filipinos by the end of 2018.

“Water resources and population are closely connected,” says Don Hinrichsen, an American environmental journalist who has done studies on water crisis for John Hopkins University and Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Dr. Thierry Facon, who used to be the senior water management officer of the regional office of Food and Agriculture Organization in Bangkok, Thailand, supports the claim. “Water use has been growing at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century,” he said.

River pollution also contributes to the country’s current water woes. A report from the Asian Development Bank some years back claimed that 16 rivers in the country were considered “biologically dead” during dry months. Some 48% of water pollution came from domestic waste, 37% from agricultural waste, and 15% from industrial waste.

“When water is polluted, fish and other aquatic resources can perish, which leads to a decline in fisheries production,” said a World Bank report, adding that the country loses an average of P17 billion annually due to the degradation of fisheries environment.

To solve the problem, a Blue Revolution is needed, according to Hinrichsen. “The main pillar is the actual management of water for society in general, taking into account the needs of nature,” he explains. “We need real water management, not just hydrologists moving water around, heedless of the consequences to other species and ecosystems. We need foresight and vision, which is sorely lacking from politicians.”

Aside from that, the Blue Revolution should take a watershed management approach. “So that each watershed has its own management plan,” Hinrichsen says.

At the same, the world needs to cut back on wastage. “People should adopt water conservation measures, everything from turning off the tap and fixing leaks, to the more efficient use of water for agriculture,” Hinrichsen suggests. “Drip irrigation techniques and other technological fixes can go a long, long way to conserving water.”

The International Water Management Institute contends that growing food with less water by improving productive of water used in agriculture is the key to solving the looming global threat.

“None of these measures will work alone,” Hinrichsen thinks. “Which is why we need a revolution in thinking about water and how it should be used. And that calls for a comprehensive management plan.”

This should be done before it’s too late. “Of all the social and natural crises we humans face,” Koichiro Matsuura, former director-general of the United Nations Economic, Social and Cultural Organization, reminded, “the water crisis is the one that lies at the heart of our survival and that of our planet Earth.” – (Next: Waterless toilet in times of disaster)