By: Anne Coglianese
Water scarcity is a growing global issue and one that is significantly exacerbated by climate change. Agricultural industries around the globe are facing drastic consequences due to limited access to freshwater. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC], the change in supply will “exacerbate competition for water among agriculture, ecosystems, settlements, industry and energy production, affecting regional water, energy and food security.”
Such scarcity may seem surprising because the world holds 332.5 million cubic miles of water, a seemingly infinite supply. However, very little of this is life-sustaining freshwater. In fact only 2.5% of water on earth is fresh, and much of this tiny amount is inaccessible for human use due to storage in either glaciers or the ground. According to the US Geological Survey, water sources, such as “rivers and lakes, only constitute about… 1/150th of one percent of total water.” However, these are the very water sources upon which humans rely most heavily.
The IPCC states in its 2014 report that climate change is projected to strain freshwater resources significantly. The report also states “each degree of warming is projected to decrease renewable water resources by at least 20% for an additional 7% of the global population.”
My interest in issues surrounding climate change and water grew as I attended a semester abroad last year with the International Honors Program, studying climate issues in four countries: the US, Vietnam, Morocco, and Bolivia. I, along with 25 other students, looked at ways to mitigate and adapt to issues that climate change will bring to food, water, and energy. Throughout the semester, I conducted independent research on the impacts that climate change and water scarcity have and will continue to have on agriculture around the world.
I learned quickly that the two are viciously linked: food production will be drastically affected by water shortages caused by climate change, but conversely agriculture plays a huge role in creating water shortages.
Technology is making great strides to help farms conserve water resources and adapt to an increasingly arid climate. Most farmers around the world use open-air irrigation systems, such as sprinklers or channels, which lose a large quantity of water to the air as vapor, long before reaching crop roots. This means that significantly more water is being used in irrigation than is being effectively used in crop production.
Drip irrigation systems have been developed to reduce water needed for irrigation. These systems dispense water directly to the crop roots through underground hoses that slowly release water. The implementation of drip irrigation can do an incredible job of reducing the strain agriculture puts on limited water resources.
Unfortunately, the average farmer in most countries cannot easily implement this technology. Whether in the US or in countries like Morocco, farmers already face narrow profit margins and struggle to become more sustainable without the financial support and education needed to implement new technologies.
Advances in technology are going to become key in preserving agricultural sectors around the world; however, technology will not be enough to sustain farming in many regions. It will become increasingly important for farmers to begin tailoring the food they produce to match the climate.
In the last fifty years, our export-oriented world has driven farmers to seek out the most profitable crops and grow them in the highest quantity possible. For example, Morocco has high fruit exports and high imports of grains; however, the arid farms of the Atlas mountains would be better suited to growing less water-demanding crops, like grains, rather than the more water-intensive crops, like fruits. Around the world, crops produced for export often lead farmers to strain the natural capacity of the land, requiring the use of fertilizers and extensive irrigation, which threaten water supplies.
The scope of the issue of water scarcity and food production is vast and growing due to climate change. No one individual or farmer has the power to reverse this scarcity, but with needed support from governments and corporations the agricultural sector can transition to widespread sustainable food production in order to avoid looming social and economic fallouts.