March 22nd is World Water Day, a day set apart to raise much-needed attention to the essential human need for accessible, clean water. World Water Day is a time for advocacy concerning our most vital resource: water. The global reach of the day is a reminder that our freshwater resources can only be sustained through thoughtful and collaborative management across borders, from individual citizens through large corporations, from governments to NGOs.
An international day to celebrate freshwater was recommended at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). The very next year, the UN General Assembly designated March 22nd as the first World Water Day.
This year’s theme for World Water Day is “Water and Food Security.” As the official campaign materials assert, “The world is thirsty because we are hungry.” This year emphasizes the connection between the food we eat and the water we drink. The water footprint is a way of measuring our direct and indirect water use, individually and collectively. Drinking, cooking and washing all obviously require water, but so does producing food, paper, clothes, etc. (in even larger quantities!) Statistics say that each of us drinks anywhere from two to four quarts of water each day. Most of the water we “drink”, however, is embedded in the food we eat: producing 1 pound of beef for example consumes 2,000 gallons of water while 1 pound of wheat “drinks up” 200 gallons.
When a billion people in the world already live in chronic hunger, water resources are increasingly under pressure. We simply cannot pretend the problem is “elsewhere.” The World Water Day Team is calling on everyone to take action:
- follow a healthier, sustainable diet
- consume less water-intensive products
- reduce disturbing levels of wasted food.
- produce more food, of better quality, with less water.
Food security exists when people have both physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs for an active and healthy life. People who have better access to water tend to have lower levels of undernourishment. The lack of water can be a major cause of famine and undernourishment, particularly in areas where people depend on local agriculture for food and income.
The future production of food and other agricultural products will not be possible without increased efforts at more efficiently using water in the fields. For a long time, progress in agricultural production has been assessed in terms of ‘yield’, the amount of production that could be extracted from a given area of land. Now, in many places, maximizing the yield per unit of land should give way to achieving the maximum yield per unit of water used. This requires a better control and application of irrigation water (as well as the use of rainwater) combined with good agricultural practices to ensure the highest possible productivity. Drainage water, treated wastewater, water that is brackish (slightly salty) and desalinated (with the salt removed) water can all be used in agriculture, especially in the arid and semi-arid zones and in rapidly growing areas around large cities. Cities’ wastewater is in fact a valuable source of nutrients for farming, although it does have to be properly managed to reduce health risks and environmental impact.
A final point in the 2012 World Water Day campaign is how we can reduce waste. Roughly 30% of the food produced worldwide (about 1.3 billion tons) is lost or wasted every year. In many developing countries, significant portions of food items produce are lost between the field and market because of inadequate storage and transportation. In developed countries, and in particular in cities, food is wasted by the consumers apathetic to the resources needed to produce it. Overeating is also a “first world problem” of waste, in addition to the toll it takes on our physical health. A change in consumer attitudes is crucial: limiting food waste reduces the water necessary to produce the food in our fridges and on our tables.