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How We Can Stave Off the Triple Threat of Climate, Water and Food Crises

It is the dramatic convergence of these crises that compel us to shift away from the dominant industrial agriculture model toward more sustainable and just alternatives.

There is growing recognition that water is the "key medium through which climate change impacts will be felt." Climate impacts on water will directly affect agriculture. And, of course, agricultural practices can both impact and mitigate climate change. Yet, all three--climate, agriculture and water--are facing severe crises. It is the dramatic convergence of these crises that compel us to shift away from the dominant industrial agriculture model toward more sustainable and just alternatives. Ultimately, agriculture will play a critical role in addressing global challenges related to climate, water, social justice and food. These challenges cannot effectively be addressed in isolation. Instead, it is time to identify the interconnection between them and develop complementary policy options and action steps.

UNFCCC and Water: An Overview

A 2008 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report found that "Observational records and climate projections provide abundant evidence that freshwater resources are vulnerable and have the potential to be strongly impacted by climate change, with wide-ranging consequences for human societies and ecosystems." The projected impacts from climate change include rising sea levels and rising temperatures, extreme variations in frequency and patterns of precipitation (be it rainfall, snowfall or snow melt) that result in floods and droughts, as well as an increase in pathogens and pests. These climate-related changes are expected to affect fresh water availability for a whole range of human uses, including agriculture.

Water-related adaptation strategies are now gaining greater attention in climate-related discussions. Unfortunately, the technofix mentality dominates. A range of technologies including genetically modified crops, biofuels, biochar and geo-engineering, dykes and dams--are being put forward as agricultural solutions to climate change. These technologies, it is claimed, will provide answers to the challenges of water scarcity, pollution and floods, and have the added value of reducing GHG emissions either by sequestering carbon, deflecting solar radiation or by providing a low-carbon energy source.6 At best, some of them (such as flood defenses and dykes) can help as a short term adaptation strategy.

However, most of these strategies reflect a narrowly conceived approach to adaptation techniques (such as water use efficiency improvement through genetic modification), or a combination of adaptation and mitigation (such as renewed investments in large hydro-electric dams) that will result in long-term negative social and ecosystem impacts that far outweigh the benefits.

It is clear why agriculture water use, which accounts for almost 70 percent of world water withdrawals, is at the intersection of three interconnected crises--food, water and climate--and what we do to address these crises must explicitly include the valuable social, cultural and biological role water plays in the world.

Reaching Limits in an Unequal World

In 2000, it was estimated that over one billion people did not have access to safe drinking water. Despite worldwide efforts to increase water supply and sanitation, in 2006, 1.069 billion people still did not have access to safe drinking water and a staggering 2.612 billion were without access to water for sanitation.

In June 2009, the number of world's hungry topped a billion. Food deficit nations, almost all of them in the South and many of them experiencing water scarcity, are further compromised by their limited access to adaptation resources. The reality is that, on a global scale, there are not enough new land or water resources that can be diverted for agricultural production without the problem incurring large environmental and social costs.

If current water use patterns continue, by 2050 the world may not have enough water to meet the food and nutritional requirements of the growing population. Even as many global institutions recognize these limits, the strategies being proposed to address the crisis often adopt the same approach that has brought us to this position in the first place. For example, even as the World Bank is calling for investment in agriculture and rural development to help alleviate poverty, its "New Deal on Global Food Policy" promotes new seeds and fertilizer for increased industrial agricultural production, and trade reform to reduce distorting subsidies and barriers that may help more sustainable, local food systems grow.

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