Post-UN Water Conference, When You Think About Your Next Meal, Think About Water

by Kai Olson-Sawyer

Published: 4/18/23, Last updated: 4/19/23

In late March 2023, delegates from more than 170 countries gathered for the first major United Nations-convened water conference in 46 years. As monumental as this conference was to people focused on water and the 7,000 attendees – advocates, Indigenous groups, scientists, officials and me – like water in a stream, the conference came and went with relatively little notice by the public.

The relative lack of fanfare doesn’t mean that the conference was insignificant. It was intended to be a midpoint review of the 10-year UN Sustainable Development Goal 6, and small but meaningful gains on water and sanitation targets were acknowledged. UN leadership and member states announced a newly established water envoy, and there is real movement towards the creation of an IPCC-like institution for water science, data and policy. In addition, early stage efforts were made by the UN, governments, NGOs and businesses to align institutions like government agencies, utilities, agricultural and industrial interests with sustainable water policy and financing, all of which is a tall order, but we must start somewhere.

Still, global water challenges abound; 25 percent of the population – or two billion people – don’t have access to safe drinking water service while 46 percent of the population lacks access to basic sanitation. In addition to access problems, there is also simply less water than there used to be in many regions.

If all these big numbers and massive shortfalls sound dreary, it’s because they are. And there are real risks of a conference like this being all talk, with less likelihood of follow up action by governments, business and other power players, a legitimate critique leveled by advocacy groups.

More remarkable was the minimal attention paid to agriculture and the overall food system, which are so bound up in water as the largest user and polluter.

It’s not as if conference sessions and speakers omitted the relationship between water and agriculture entirely, but water’s elemental role in food security was underemphasized. The fact is that agriculture makes up 72 percent of total water withdrawals worldwide, and 92 percent of the world’s total water footprint. Therefore, feeding the world depends on maintaining adequate supplies of clean freshwater.

This event’s underplaying of agriculture’s dependence on water reflects how leaders working on systemic global crises, like food and climate, continue to overlook how central water resilience is to their issue’s problems and ultimate resolution. This message is key to the landmark Turning the Tide report, recently released by the Global Commission on the Economics of Water, which called for collective action to restore the broken water cycle of too much, too little or too polluted water. In a Guardian interview about the report, co-chair and lead author, Johan Rockstrom, noted that, “There will be no agricultural revolution unless we fix water. Behind all these challenges we are facing, there’s always water, and we never talk about water.”

Water scarcity is a major issue for the growing concern of producing enough food for the world’s burgeoning population. The Turning the Tide report finds that freshwater demand is projected to outpace supply by 40 percent by 2030. Meanwhile, this year’s UN water development report cites that about 25 percent of global croplands experience economic water scarcity, where irrigation is lacking because of constrained economic governmental capacity (connected to things like infrastructure and pollution) and not just not limited physical water supplies.

To paraphrase Rockstrom, we must talk about water.

Water is No Afterthought

Natural variability for rain and local water resources have always made agriculture precarious. Torrential rains or interminable droughts can wipe out a farmer’s crops or livestock, and with it, their livelihood.

As population, prosperity and demand grow, and as climate change makes precipitation more erratic and extreme with heavier rains and deeper droughts, the connection between water and food only becomes stronger. The context-based nature of water means climate, geography, hydrology, ecology, industrial water use patterns and more all interact to make water unique to its place, a “locally sourced” original, albeit one in constant flux.

Although rivers or groundwater of a specific location are diverted to grow wheat to produce bread, for example, or cool data centers that produce digital technology, water is increasingly used to produce goods and services that are moved far from its watershed. Recognizing this, the Declaration for Fair Water Footprints presented research at the conference showing how high-income countries like the UK, Netherlands, Japan and the U.S. rely heavily on imports – largely food – produced by lower-income countries under water stress.

Through this “virtual water trade,” production in often economically deprived areas can engender unsustainable water use that depletes resources and damages ecosystems. The local nature of water is commoditized through import and export of goods like food products. In this way, consumers are implicated in both aiding a distant country’s economy and adding to their water stress.

Terms to Know
Virtual Water
Virtual water is the water “hidden” in the products, services and processes people buy and use every day.

The Fair Water Footprint initiative was an example of a nascent attempt in the conference to break through siloed ways of thinking, recognizing that water as a resource cannot be evaluated separately from agriculture, energy, industry and so forth. In reality, they are all interconnected systems that can’t be untangled and must be addressed holistically. That sounds good, but can be difficult to achieve.

Practically speaking, water might be the linchpin to the systemic approach we need to deal with the multiple crises we face with climate, food, energy, economies, and yes, water. Because water is the basis of life on Earth, water resilience offers a ripple of hope to unite different issues and interests.

Set aside the high-level meetings, the session presentations, the chatter in the hallways and dinner tables, the real value of the UN water conference was an invocation to work, work that starts with us and how we frame our thinking. So, when you think of your next meal, think of water. When you think of flipping on the light switch, think of water. When you think of everyday life, think of water. Because when we live our lives, we live our lives through water. Whether we see it or feel it, water is what we depend on for just about everything.

Top photo by Budimir Jevtic/Adobe Stock.

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