As Sydney turned off the taps this month, several hundred experts in the field of water management convened in Nairobi to launch The Challenge Program on Water and Food to tackle the impending global freshwater crisis. This consortium involves international and national research institutes (including Australia’s own CSIRO), NGOs and local communities across the globe uniting in an effort to find innovative ways of producing more food by using less water.
The 4.2 million Australian residents who have been banned from using sprinklers and watering systems are part of a global community which must treat water as a precious resource in limited supply.
United Nations evaluation of world water resources 2003 estimates 1/3 of the world’s population live in countries experiencing high levels of water stress. By 2025, half the world’s projected population may be affected - 3.5 billion people in total – and I am not just talking about being unable to water your lawn.
Yet irrigation, not people, is by far the largest global consumer of water. Two hundred and fifty million hectares of irrigated land worldwide guzzles roughly 70 per cent of the share of the world’s water used by people. Without irrigation, increased agricultural yields responsible for feeding growing populations wouldn’t have been possible.
But demand for water is fast outweighing the supply. An exploding global population will result in a 40 per cent increase in worldwide cereal demands by 2025 and it often takes 3000 litres of water to produce a kilo of rice.
The CGIAR Challenge Program was set up to find ways of growing more food using less water because improving water productivity is critical to overcoming water scarcity.
We can’t afford to be complacent. There’s a real threat that if steps aren’t taken to contain this crisis we could see serious reductions in food production and increasing food prices, according to the International Water Management Institute (IWMI).
IWMI and its partners believe the worst-case scenario would be a breakdown in domestic water service for hundreds of millions of people, combined with severe environmental degradation and loss of freshwater ecosystems. Withdrawals of water, mostly for agriculture, have already resulted in the loss of 40 per cent of the world’s ecosystems in the past 50 years.
The CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food is the largest agricultural research program of its kind, and will span 15 years. Scientists are based in nine river basins throughout the world from the Mekong, "Lifeline of the Far East", to the "Imperiled Nile Delta". Outcomes will shape the future of water management for agriculture and have serious implications for communities the world over.
In Australia this could mean solutions for problems facing the Murray Darling which currently produces about 41 per cent of Australia's grain, wool, fruit, wine, vegetables and meat, and is home to about 2 million Australians. Heavy reliance on its natural resources is degrading the quality of the land and water, affecting people and the region's flora and fauna.
From what I’ve learned as part of this international water crisis effort, it is certainly in Australia’s own interests to follow through on the suggestions by Australian groups such as the Wentworth Group of Scientists and WWF Australia for Australians to become water-literate as consumers, to benchmark the water efficiency of irrigation industries and districts, and show on packaging the water efficiency of the milk, fruit, vegetables or rice we buy in our supermarkets.
So if losing the freedom to soak your lawn at all times of the day and night, or taking shorter showers, waiting until you have a full load before using the dishwasher or washing machine, or using the half-flush on your toilet feels like an inconvenience, try thinking again.
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