22 March 2021 | Guillaume Gruere, Makiko Shigemitsu
This year’s World Water Day celebrates the value of water. Water is essential to our daily lives. Just think of the glass of water we take with our meals. But in reality, we actually use the most water through our food. According to the UN FAO, between 2 000 and 5 000 litres of water are needed to produce a person’s daily food intake. Water is an indispensable ingredient to agricultural production and without water, farmers would not be able to grow their crops and feed their animals. Therefore water insecurity means food insecurity.
However, this reality is insufficiently reflected in ongoing discussions related the transformation of the food system. In the lead up to the September 2021 UN Food Systems Summit, governments, businesses, and other stakeholders around the world have been holding dialogues and trying to identify solutions to solve the triple challenge of food systems; that is, providing food security and nutrition for a growing population; providing livelihoods for people involved in farming and along the food chain, and contributing to environmental sustainability. Yet water is rarely the focus of food systems discussions, despite its critical importance in solving these challenges.
- A shift towards more nutritious and healthier diets will have repercussion on water consumption that we cannot ignore. Some of the healthy food we need, particularly fruits and vegetables, requires a sufficient amount of good quality water to be produced.
- Farmers will suffer without sufficient access to water, or if they face catastrophic flooding events. Today, an increasing number of agricultural regions are chronically short of water, others face more frequent drought spells, intense typhoons or other flooding events, which are intensifying under climate change, all of which affect farm production and often income.
- Sustainable food production will not happen if water is not managed properly. Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of global freshwater withdrawals, and remains a major source of water pollution. The UN Sustainable Development Goal on water (SDG 6) includes specific targets on irrigation.
Thankfully, water and agriculture issues are not new to farmers, private companies and governments. Managing water for irrigation, bolstering resilience to agriculture water risks, and reducing agriculture pollution are recognised objectives shared by many public and private stakeholders on OECD and G20 countries.
Governments of OECD countries, in particular, have made progress in the management of water in agriculture. A 2020 OECD study surveyed governments’ actions on agriculture and water between 2009 and 2019 and found significant changes in the management of water quantity, water quality, and water risks in agriculture (Figure 1). Furthermore it showed that these changes were on average relatively aligned with the OECD guidance on water policy and governance defined by the 2016 OECD Council Recommendation on Water; which is also reflected in the Toolkit for water policies and governance released today.
To provide further insights and information to policy makers, the OECD has developed a series of country agriculture and water profiles, synthesising key agriculture and water policy characteristics and their developments in the 2009-19 period. These profiles offer a rapid overview of the main challenges of each country and the key policy approaches they have adopted so far to tackle them. They also show what each country has accomplished over the last ten years.
While some countries have progressed faster than others, local specificities matter significantly. Those countries facing limited water quantity challenges may not have an impetus to act rapidly. Still, climate change means that rigidities in the systems could be problematic and being adaptive is going to be increasingly important for the future of agriculture. OECD countries also face water quality challenges that require further attention.
Government policies need to tackle water risks to make water available for food production and to ensure that agricultural production does not pollute surface and groundwater. Water is essential in our daily lives, from the glass we drink to the food that we put on our tables. Ensuring its sustainable use will be critical for the sustainability of food systems in the future.