Increasing water scarcity is threatening agricultural production: Op-ed

Increasing water scarcity is threatening agricultural production: Op-ed

Dr. Ayşegül Selışık
Increasing water scarcity is threatening agricultural production: Op-ed

Water is at the core of our existence. From an agriculture perspective, water is the essence of the food we grow. The world’s food systems depend on the planet’s water systems. Many global challenges, however, are threatening the sustainability of our water resources leading to water stress and scarcity and therefore impeding our efforts to attain food security.

The growing population is one of the most notable drivers of these challenges. With population growth, the demand for freshwater sources also rises, causing more competition and water withdrawals, which in turn exerts even further pressure on water-related ecosystems and the services they provide. The growing population also means producing more food, and irrigated agriculture already accounts for more than 70 percent of global water withdrawals. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ (FAO) latest report also points out that “freshwater resources available per person have declined by more than 20 percent in the last two decades.” Coupled with population growth, climate change is also exacerbating the existing situation with consequences such as disruption to precipitation patterns, increased drought frequencies, and more water stress.

Such challenges significantly threaten the availability of water resources and the livelihoods of people. It goes beyond being an environmental problem and has immediate and long-term socio-economic impacts. FAO’s “The State of Food and Agriculture 2020 Report” estimates that approximately 3.2 billion people live in areas that experience high levels of water stress and drought frequency. Of these 3.2 billion people, 1.2 billion face extreme water stress and droughts impeding agriculture and food production. The “2021 Global Report on Food Crises” also estimates that at least 155 million people in 55 countries experienced food crises in 2020 as a result of several crises such as conflict, climate change and COVID-19. This figure accounts for an increase of approximately 20 million people compared to 2019. Further, 28 million people in 38 countries are in a state of emergency with regards to food crises and require urgent action.

Turkey is another country facing severe water stress and drought in several parts of the country. Freshwater available per person in water-rich countries is above 10,000 cubic meters annually, whereas, in Turkey, this amount is 1,350 cubic meters per person per year. Estimates suggest that Turkey’s population may reach 100 million by 2030. This means that available water per capita may decline to 1000 cubic meters. Moreover, Turkey uses 74 percent of its water on agricultural irrigation. In addition to factors such as population growth, industrialization and socio-economic development, NASA has warned that many cities in Turkey, in particular Istanbul, have reached their lowest water storage levels in 15 years and is facing severe drought risk. NASA also warns that the persistence of such conditions will threaten crop production. Similarly, Konya Plain, a major region for agricultural production, has also received 38 percent less precipitation from July to December 2020 compared to the previous year resulting in reduced harvest.

In conclusion, climate change, population increase, socio-economic development and its result of increased demand for the consumption of meat and dairy products, which are carbon-intensive industries, and shocks such as COVID-19 are threatening the sustainability of our food systems and ecosystem services, leading to emerging global challenges such as food insecurity, disparities in accessing clean and sufficient water, and loss of ecosystems. Turkey has already adopted more ecological perspectives and initiated efforts for an ecosystem-based water management. FAO is also collaborating with the Turkish government on several projects. One such project, is the Sustainable Land Management and Climate-Friendly Agriculture Project, being implemented in the Konya Closed Basin to introduce and implement climate-friendly agricultural practices, and address drought through innovative irrigation solutions. The project introduced programmed irrigation techniques to improve water use efficiency and increase water savings while achieving greater yields. As a result, 25.5 percent and 23.5 percent water saving was achieved in sugar beet and grain maize respectively with a 9 percent increase in sugar beet and 29.2 percent increase in maize yields.

Addressing such multi-disciplinary issues will require concerted efforts technically, institutionally and legally. Ensuring the health of our ecosystems will also ensure the sustainability of our water resources and our agricultural production.

*Dr. Ayşegül Selışık is the assistant FAO representative in Turkey.