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Agriculture and Water Impact

UNESCO has predicted that globally, food demand will increase by 70% by 2050. And, mounting interest in staple crops like maize and wheat is coinciding with a widespread dietary shift that has more people eating increasing amounts of livestock and poultry products - including meat, dairy, and eggs.


A growing and increasingly wealthy global population must be fed, placing intense pressure on water resources.

In the next 40 years, the world’s farmers need to produce more food than they managed to produce in the previous 10,000. Efforts to feed a growing and increasingly affluent global population will inevitably result in increasing demand for water and energy - at a time when worsening climate change is poised to dramatically alter the availability of water resources.

 Agriculture's harm to ecosystems can be mitigated by decreasing post-harvest waste, and by employing a more sustainable use of fertilizers and pesticides. Developed economies will likely adopt these technologies and techniques first, though the biggest benefits in terms of increasing crop yields will be realized in developing nations - particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

Agriculture already places a significant amount of pressure on the world's freshwater reserves; it accounts for nearly 70% of global water withdrawals (the figure actually rises to nearly 90% in countries where farming is most intensive). Unless substantial efforts are made to reduce food waste, and to increase the water-use productivity of agriculture - that is, to get more “crop per drop” - water demand generated by the agricultural sector is projected to only further increase. According to a United Nations report published in 2019, the global population is expected to increase to about 9.7 billion by the year 2050, from roughly 7.7 billion - and then to 10.9 billion by the year 2100. 


Meat-based diets are relatively more water-intensive than other varieties. Already, aquifers (layers of permeable rock that serve as reservoirs for groundwater) in many regions with high-potential farmland are being depleted, and nutrients from farm runoff are polluting drinking water wells and resulting in harmful algal blooms in lakes and rivers. Technology that can help to increase crop yields and make plants more drought resistant will become increasingly necessary in the near future.

Conflict, Security and Water

Water was not historically considered a primary driver of global conflict; rather, it was seen as a compounding variable that worsened existing tension. However, as the global climate becomes more erratic, it also becomes more difficult to accurately forecast freshwater availability at a particular time and location - an increase in uncertainty that places water in a far more prominent role as a source of discord.


As the effects of climate change worsen, water becomes a more prominent source of conflict.


Water is playing an increasingly prominent role in civil unrest - sometimes as a target, and often as a catalyst. Examples include the violent protests in Morocco’s Rif region that followed water shortages there in 2017, and the destruction by militants of an important well in Kenya’s Mandera County, also in 2017, which left hundreds of residents without water.


The Indus Waters Treaty, which divides the Indus River tributaries between India and Pakistan, is a prominent example of compromise over shared waters. However, this type of cooperation is being tested by climate change, population growth, and regional conflict. More dramatic swings in seasonal water supply can threaten stability by affecting agricultural output and spurring migration.

 The Pacific Institute, a US-based think tank, has long tracked incidents including attacks on water systems and infrastructure, the use of water as a weapon, and terrorist attacks on water systems.

The institute has noted a recent shift in the nature of these conflicts - away from water disputes between nations, and towards more sub-national and local violence related to water access.


There are glaring links between economic trends, instances of social instability, and increasingly unequal access to water. Global income disparities are now wider than they have been in the past century, and this inequality combined with mounting climate stress is reshaping global geopolitics. While the Arab Spring resulted in deposed dictators, fractious politics in the Middle East have since spurred mass migration. Amid this shifting socio-economic landscape, water is increasingly a flashpoint or trigger for violent conflict in places like Syria and Yemen.


Only by better understanding the links between water and the traditional metrics of conflict can we more closely predict, understand, and react to water-related conflict.

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Billions of people live without safe drinking water and sanitation, and severe tropical storms, drought, and the depletion of rivers and aquifers have displaced rural populations - forcing them into cities, or across international borders in ways that have impacted domestic politics in much of the world.


Rural livelihoods often depend on agriculture, which accounts for roughly three-quarters of global freshwater withdrawals and generates nutrients that pollute watersheds in the world’s breadbaskets. These issues can be addressed with better planning and cooperation, and through increased investment, data analysis, and technological innovation.


Securing an adequate supply of clean water despite the damaging effects of climate change is one of the world’s most urgent challenges.

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Water’s Role in Human and Environmental Health

Dirty water sickens and kills millions of people annually as a result of waterborne diseases; according to the WHO, roughly 361,000 children under the age of five die every year due to diarrhea. Globally, only 60% of households have both water and soap for handwashing, a first line of defense against the spread of COVID-19 and other diseases. Just 2% of hospitals and healthcare facilities in 78 low- and middle-income countries have the complete hygienic package of running water, adequate toilets, waste disposal, and handwashing equipment, according to a University of North Carolina study. Because substances readily dissolve into water (often dubbed the “universal solvent”), it is often where pollutants end up.


The world’s supply of fresh water, crucial for health and for preventing the spread of diseases like COVID-19, is at risk. About three in 10 people worldwide do not have access to safe drinking water from a home faucet, according to a World Health Organization report published in 2017. More than 4.5 billion people lack sanitary toilet facilities. Aquifers (layers of permeable rock and sand that store water underground), rivers, and tap water can all become potentially dangerous conduits for the chemical and bacterial markers of their surroundings.

 These markers can include lead from pipes; industrial solvents from manufacturing facilities; mercury from unlicensed gold mines; viruses from animal waste; and nitrates and pesticides from farm fields.

The world’s ecosystems are put at risk due to the degradation and extraction of water. Algal blooms fueled by fertilizers are a growing global menace killing fish, turning away tourists, contaminating drinking water, and depressing property values. Water withdrawals, unsustainable development, and a changing climate have also taken a toll; large lakes such as Lake Chad, with a basin shared by five countries in Africa’s Sahel, and Lake Urmia, in Iran, are shrinking. About 30 million people live in the Lake Chad Basin alone, which provides fresh water for irrigation and drinking.


Important marsh ecosystems are also declining - as much as half of the world’s wetlands have been filled in, and wetland loss has accelerated in recent decades. In addition, dams have been constructed that slice rivers into segments - a habitat fragmentation that has decimated salmon in the Pacific Northwest in the US, and fisheries in the Mekong River Basin in Asia.

Energy and Water

Energy choices can have serious consequences for water availability and need to be tailored to specific challenges that vary by region. Even policies designed to mitigate climate change, such as carbon capture, can potentially exacerbate water scarcity.


Better managing water use can result in more efficient and environmentally-beneficial energy use.

Energy production based on fossil fuels and nuclear power requires large volumes of water - and the heating, transportation, purification, and use of water consumes vast amounts of energy. Wind turbines and solar panels, by contrast, require little to no water to produce electricity.


Policies that successfully account for both energy and water use can have multiple benefits. For example, an urban water conservation mandate implemented during a drought in California resulted in electricity savings 11% greater than what was achieved by electric utility efficiency programs during the same period - while cutting greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 111,000 cars on the road for a full year.

 The fossil fuel economy is water-intensive and dirty; waste products from burning coal send toxic heavy metals into groundwater and rivers. Water demand for fracking in the US has soared - by as much as 770% per well between 2011 and 2016 in the Permian Basin - potentially severely limiting local freshwater availability. Thermal power plants account for more water withdrawals (used for cooling) than any other sector in the US, though much of it is returned (at a warmer temperatures) to rivers and lakes.

Still, these plants rely on consistent river flows and temperatures, so extreme variations can be disruptive. Severe droughts in France and in the southern US have resulted in power plant deratings or shutdowns when river temperatures become too hot.


Some alternative energy options also have drawbacks; ethanol-based biofuels require land and water to grow corn, switchgrass, and other feedstocks, for example. The reservoirs associated with hydropower dams in arid regions lose substantial amounts of water to evaporation, while dams in tropical regions generate methane emissions. In terms of energy use for water treatment and purification, Saudi Arabia dedicates 10% of domestic oil consumption to desalinating water, according to estimates, while in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates desalination accounts for roughly 30% of electricity use.

Water, Climate Change and Ecosystems


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, published in late 2018, noted that by limiting the global average temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, instead of 2°C, we could significantly reduce the risk of severe negative outcomes for ecosystems and human development. If the temperature increase was limited to 1.5°C sea level rise by the year 2100 would be 10 centimeters lower than it would be at a 2°C increase - posing less of a threat to coastal cities, and lessening the risk of severe heat waves and torrential storms. A mere 0.5°C difference in temperature change could significantly impact water systems and human health.


Climate change is already affecting both the availability and quality of water resources. On a warming planet, extreme and irregular weather events such as floods and drought are expected to only become more frequent. Warmer river and lake temperatures will reduce dissolved oxygen in the water, and make habitats more lethal for the fish that rely on it to breathe. Warming waters are also more prolific incubators of harmful algae and cyanobacteria that are toxic for aquatic life and for humans.


A mere half-degree of extra warming above 1.5°C would also mean a ten-fold increase in ice-free summers in the Arctic and a doubling of the rate of crop loss, according to the report. It also identified important links between climate change and safe drinking water access - and cautioned that socio-economic factors like governance and wealth play significant, related roles.


Tropical forests, ocean systems and corals, and wetlands are particularly vulnerable. More extreme variation in rainfall and drought are likely in both a 1.5°C and 2°C scenario; in many cases, more warmth will lessen the quality and quantity of water for agriculture and other human activity. Limiting warming to 1.5°C will be difficult, but possible, according to the IPCC - though its report indicated that breakthroughs in carbon sequestration technology may be necessary to complement existing emissions-reduction efforts.


Emerging technologies and adaptation can help reduce vulnerability to climate change, and increase the resilience of water resources and systems. Further research is needed in order to increase awareness and understanding of climate change generally, and to better adapt to it.

According to an estimate published by the McKinsey Global Institute, $11.7 trillion must be invested in global infrastructure between 2013 and 2030 to meet water and sanitation needs. Infrastructure is not only pipes, pumps, and treatment facilities - more leaders are recognizing the benefit of using natural systems to slow storm flows, store water, and cleanse runoff. As a complement to traditional, “hard” infrastructure, such green infrastructure options include street swales (vegetated channels used to reduce stormwater flows), wetlands, rainwater harvesting, and grassy roofs. An estimated $11.7 trillion must be invested water infrastructure between 2013 and 2030.


Water infrastructure may take many forms, but it provides a singular backbone for any modern economy. Drinking water distribution pipes, treatment plants, sewage reclamation, levees and dams built for flood protection, and canals that irrigate millions of hectares of farmland are all critical for sustained economic growth and adequate well-being. Beneath the streets of any large city, there are thousands of kilometres of water mains - many of these systems are in dire need of renewal, in order to avoid catastrophe and ensure water security.


The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has argued that because global interest rates have remained historically low, and infrastructure needs are now historically significant, this is an ideal time to scale up investment in water infrastructure. The results of this would likely be cleaner, more reliable water, relatively fewer child deaths from diarrheal disease (the second-leading cause of death among children under five years old, according to the World Health Organization), and increased labor productivity. However, current investment levels are insufficient to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals related to drinking water and sanitation established in 2015.


They are also insufficient to repair ageing municipal water systems in developed countries, expand systems to accommodate urban growth, meet stricter water-quality regulations, or adequately adapt to climate change. It is not uncommon, for example, for large cities in India to lose half their water supply to leaks.


All are small-scale alternatives that are less environmentally damaging than what has been used in the past. Green bonds, or debt raised specifically for environmental purposes, could be used to finance related investment; total issuance of green bonds reached $269.5 billion in 2020, following 60% average annual growth since 2015, according to the Climate Bonds Initiative.

Valuing Water

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Global economic growth is increasingly thirsty; demand for water is rising in order to not only meet the needs of growing populations, but also to supply expanding industries. Unfortunately, water is often managed in isolation - and water-intensive sectors such as energy, mining, agriculture, and manufacturing have a tendency to pursue individual plans that are potentially damaging to rivers and aquifers. Economies that fail to develop better water resource management may suffer significant consequences


The World Economic Forum has consistently ranked water crises among the most prominent issues in its annual Global Risks Report. In the 2020 edition of the report, for example, water crises ranked fifth overall in terms of impact.


This planning fragmentation exacerbates the risks faced by businesses and their investors. CDP, a non-profit research organization that serves institutional investors, and the CEO Water Mandate, an initiative formed by business leaders under United Nations auspices, have consistently found that most companies believe they may be affected by substantial water-related risks. As a result, more companies in water-intensive sectors are working to improve their understanding of water management challenges, and are closely evaluating their own vulnerability to water scarcity.

 A report published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in 2018 presented circular opportunities for water including capturing “greywater” (waste water that does not contain sewage) for non-potable use. Water affects all aspects of the global economy, and must be managed in a more integrated and holistic way.

Some regions could suffer declines of as much as 6% of GDP by the year 2050 as a result of water-related losses in agriculture, health, income, and property, according to a report published by the World Bank. However, the report also noted that other regions could see economic growth accelerate by as much as 6% over the same period thanks to improved water resource management.  


Advocates of a circular economy approach, where products are reused rather than discarded, have demonstrated ways to reduce water waste in production and agriculture.  


Increased transparency and community engagement will be important for valuing water in ways that reflect all social, economic, and environmental interests - if particularly water-intensive sectors can collaborate effectively, water pricing, trading, and allocation can all become more efficient.

Water Data and Technology

Emerging technologies can help curb water waste and better monitor water systems. Developments in data processing and collection, driven by artificial intelligence, could readily enable people, businesses, and governments to better understand their water needs - and eliminate unnecessary use.


The speed and scale of technological advancements propelling the Fourth Industrial Revolution are transforming the global economy at a time when concerns about water have never been greater. This industrial revolution offers an unprecedented opportunity to confront water risk, and seize untapped economic opportunities in both developing and developed countries alike.


In addition, advancements in laboratory-grown meat have the potential to eliminate the need for the more than 15,000 liters of water that it takes to produce a single kilogram of beef, according to a report published by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 2013.


Developments such as the Internet of Things, the efficient use of big data, artificial intelligence, sensors, advancements in material sciences, and faster computing power are changing the way the world manages its global environmental commons. For example, improvements in aeroponics, a technique of growing plants that does not require soil, has made it possible to reduce water consumption by 95% compared with more conventional, soil-based agriculture - while also preventing environmental runoff, which can carry pollutants and contaminate drinking water.


Emerging technologies can also help urban centers become more resilient when it comes to their water systems. Singapore, for example, announced in 2018 that in order to help its water service cope with increasing demand and costs, the city-state is turning to technology such as artificial intelligence-powered imaging used to detect micro-invertebrates in water samples - and trigger related alerts. Other examples of technology and data-driven infrastructure design employed to make water more sustainable include efforts in parts of the United Kingdom to use advanced sensors and connected Internet of Things devices to help identify leaks in water systems - which account for nearly 20% of water loss - and make them easier to repair.


If they are implemented on a broader scale, such advancements could dramatically reduce global water demand, both for agriculture and for domestic use, while also helping reduce related greenhouse gas emissions.

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