Global Agriculture & Water Scarcity

By China Water Risk 9 April, 2014

Tension between crop production & water supply is forecasted to grow, see what WRI is doing about it

More than 25% of global agriculture is grown in high water stress areas threatening global commodities
Business-as-usual = water demand likely to rise by 50% in 2030 but water supply will not & physically cannot
Better tools and water & food data can help create a more robust agri sector giving rising competition for water

All living creatures need two things to survive: food and water. A new WRI analysis shows just how much tension exists between those two essential resources.
A new interactive map from WRI’s Aqueduct project reveals that more than 25 percent of the world’s agriculture is grown in areas of high water stress. This figure doubles when looking at irrigated cropland, which produces 40 percent of global food supply.
This analysis highlights the tension between water availability and agricultural production. Finding a balance between these two critical resources will be essential—especially as the global population expands.

Agriculture Under Stress

Already, water demand in many parts of the world is meeting or exceeding natural supply. Overlaying global crop production maps with Aqueduct’s Water Risk Atlas reveals agriculture’s current exposure to water stress.
Portion of global agriculture production under high or extremely high stress
In the face of this water-food nexus, three major points are important to keep in mind:

  1. Different crops face different levels of stress in different regions. More than 40 percent of wheat is grown in areas facing high or extremely high levels of water stress. Fiber crops, such as cotton, are grown under even more stressed conditions. More than half of global cotton production happens in regions of high or extremely high stress.
  2. Water consumption levels vary by crop type. Globally, roots (carrots and beets) and tubers (potatoes) require an average of 0.5 liters of water per calorie, whereas legumes (lentils and beans) require 1.2 liters per calorie, according to researchers at the University of Twente and the Water Footprint Network. In other words, different types of crops create different water footprints.
  3. Irrigated land is twice as likely to be highly stressed. Irrigation alone – which can use surface water, groundwater, or both – can dramatically increase crop production. However, it is an enormous water consumer and the single-largest driver of water stress around the world. As ever-higher food demand drives more farmers to irrigate their land, the world’s rivers and aquifers will be increasingly strained.

Agriculture exposure to water stress map
These strained resources are a problem in themselves, but they also affect water users’ and managers’ ability to respond to droughts and other severe or chronic shortages. In areas where water is plentiful or where fewer users are competing, the excess supply acts as a buffer when droughts settle in. Droughts are more damaging in more arid areas or places where too many people compete for limited resources.

A Growing Risk

“… global calorie production to increase 69% to feed 9.6 billion people by 2050″

The tension between crop production and available water supply is already great, as agriculture currently accounts for more than 70 percent of all human water withdrawal. But the real problem is that this tension is poised to intensify. The 2030 Water Resources Group forecasts that under business-as-usual conditions, water demand will rise 50 percent by 2030. Water supplies, however, will not—and physically cannot—grow in parallel. Agriculture will drive nearly half of that additional demand, because global calorie production needs to increase 69 percent to feed 9.6 billion people by 2050.
The food-water tension won’t just be felt by agriculture, either. Agriculture’s growing thirst will squeeze water availability for municipal use, energy production, and manufacturing. With increasing demand in all sectors, some regions of the world, such as northern China, are already scrambling to find enough water to run their economies.

Ensuring a Water- and Food-Secure Future

Only by looking at food and water together is it possible to address the challenges within both. That is why WRI is working on mapping how the world’s relationship with water will be changing in the coming decades and identifying sustainable solutions to increase food production. For example, future food demand will only be met if farmers increase crop yields through better soil and water management. Furthermore, water use can be reduced through a suite of solutions like reducing food loss and waste, shifting to healthier diets, reducing biofuel demand, and achieving replacement fertility rates.

“With better data… countries and companies can create a more robust agricultural sector…”

These are just a few of the solutions that will be necessary if we are to ensure a water- and food-secure future. With better data on where and how agriculture is constrained by water, countries and companies can create a more robust agricultural sector—without overtaxing water and other natural resources.
Learn more: View the interactive map of agriculture’s exposure to water stress.
See this article on WRI’s website here.


Further Reading
Water and Agriculture

  • The State of China’s Agriculture – China’s limited water and arable land plus rampant water pollution not only exacerbate water scarcity, but also raises concerns over food safety & food security. Get the latest update on agriculture & water and see why these policies matter for global trade
  • 8 Things You Should Know About Rice & Water – How much of water & farmlands are used to grow rice in China? What about exposure to Cadmium, Mercury, Lead & Arsenic? Can China ensure rice security? Here are 8 things you should know about rice & water in China
  • Water Pollution Could Lead to More Trade – Upon the publication of No Water, No Food – ensuring food safety & food security in China, HSBC’s Wai-Shin Chan tells us why China’s war on pollution, the need for self-sufficiency may result in more agri trade
  • Crying Lands: China’s Polluted Waterscapes – Award-winning Photographer Lu Guang shares his journey into China’s polluted landscape and shows us the tangible linkages between industrial pollution and social issues with his insightful and apocalyptic photos
  • Heavy Metals & Agriculture – Check out China Water Risk’s overview of the status of heavy metals discharge into wastewater, priority provinces, overlap with agriculture sown lands, crops exposed and industries targeted for clean-up
  • Water: Shaping China’s Food & Energy Choices – Debra talks about key issues & new trends surfacing from the Fortune Global Forum roundtable and why she thinks the 12FYP Strategic Emerging Industries are the real Magnificent Seven
  • Food for Thought – Would China import more chicken or corn from Brazil? Should farming regions swap beef with iPads? Will water hikes dampen demand for water? Debra Tan from China Water Risk muses
  • Agriculture: A Prosperous Ever After? – With recent reports on by the Chinese government, FAO, HSBC and WEF all highlighting agriculture concerns, Debra Tan takes a closer look at food, property. the weather and potential strategies to ensure a prosperous ever after
  • The War on Water Pollution – Premier Li Keqiang has just declared war on pollution. Tan expands on the government’s stratagems & offensives and fundamental changes required to shore up the MEP’s arsenal in order to wage a successful war
  • China Water Risk’s 5 Trends for 2014 – With environmental risk cited as one of the top risks most likely to derail economic growth along with the banking crisis and housing bubble, check out our top 5 trends in water for the year of the Green Horse
  • Water: Moving Out of Silos – As part of CLSA’s latest ESG in China report: “Mopping-up”, China Water Risk’s Debra Tan was interviewed on all things water: from water & coal to textiles, food & government policies

Water and Data

  • Aqueduct Global Water Stress Rankings – Aqueduct’s first-ever water stressed rankings of 100 river basins & 181 nations found that 37 countries face national & economic security threats from exposure to extremely high baseline water stress levels
  • Mapping Water with Aqueduct – With a water supply crisis as a top five risks facing the world, WRI’s Tien Shiao walks us through how Aqueduct can help companies and investors gain perspective
  • Bloomberg’s Views on Water – Bloomberg’s Liu & Bullard, discuss the importance of ESG analytics and why water use & efficiency data is crucial in the face of an increasingly water-insecure future in identifying portfolio risk

China Water Risk
Author: China Water Risk
We believe regardless of whether we care for the environment that water risks affect us all – as investors, businesses and individuals. Water risks are fundamental to future decision making and growth patterns in global economies. Water scarcity has emerged as a critical sustainability issue for China's economy and since water powers the economy, we aim to highlight these risks inherent in each sector. In addition, we write about current trends in the global water industry, analyze changes occurring both regionally and globally, as well as providing explanations on the new technologies that are revolutionizing this industry.
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