22 March 2023 | Category: UN 2023 Water Conference

Water and food: not taking action is not an option

By Catharien Terwisscha van Scheltinga

Senior Researcher Water Management in Deltas...

While waiting for my badge to get access to the UN Headquarters in New York, I’m eating an apple. One hundred twenty five liters of water are needed for an apple. One never thinks about that much, right? But as I’m at the UN Water Conference, it is all about water.

A quick calculation will show you that 125 liters of water is more than the water one drinks in a day, plus the water for a shower, plus the water for washing one’s clothes. So the water for our daily food is one of the largest water requirements one has. And 125 liters is just for an apple. My daily total food basket requires much more. My water requirements are largely determined by what I eat.

Too much, too little, too dirty

And while the topic of water is prominent on the agenda of the UN Water Conference, the discussion is relatively less about the connection between water and food. Is it not important? It definitely is! But quite complicated. And sometimes a bit tricky and sensitive – especially if it is about water being used in one country for food production, and then no longer being available to another. Or when water gets dirty in one place, which affects people in other places.

Challenges regarding water are often related to ‘too much’, ‘too little’, or ‘too dirty’. Alarming is, that worldwide water shortages are experienced, while simultaneously ‘zero hunger’ (SDG2) together with 16 other sustainable development goals of the United Nations are not being met, and the agriculture and food sector is meanwhile facing complex problems around nitrogen deposition, climate change and biodiversity loss. Complex. And many uncertainties. What to do?

Hunger should not increase in this world

Most people stop moving when no longer sure what to do, in cases that are complex and complicated. That’s normal. However, waiting is not really an option: hunger should not increase in this world! If we wait to take action addressing water and food together, problems will only be bigger! Of course it is not simple to ensure income for farmers, produce sufficient food, enhance biodiversity instead of reducing it, and increase water quality instead of polluting it. All complex issues, with many uncertainties. But not taking action is not an option.

Adaptive water management

From the COVID-pandemic we did learn something. That was also a very complicated, uncertain situation. But there was an urge to take action, and action was taken, to find solutions. That did not prevent the problem, but it certainly resulted in the development of vaccinations within a rather short time. And yes, mistakes were made in the process, but altogether it is an example of learning while working on a worldwide challenge with large uncertainties.

In water management this is called adaptive water management and in the agriculture and food sector this is called transformation of food systems. It entails that based on a common goal, scenarios are developed to explore possible futures, and decisions are taken while going. This is an insight that may be used to address the challenges we face in this world to feed everybody and leave no one behind, and to have enough water available for all the food needed.

Lots of work ahead in New York

This requires knowledge and capacity, but first and foremost it needs a joint feeling of urgency. It is urgent that we implement new solutions, urgent that we collaborate with even more people, and urgent to ensure that solutions on water are intricately connected with solutions for food. Lots of work ahead here in New York!

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By Catharien Terwisscha van Scheltinga

Senior Researcher Water Management in Deltas

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