Food And Water: Can We Meet Increasing Demand?

As global population and consumption rise, unsustainable practices and policies are undermining the natural resources on which we all depend, threatening the well-being of people and the planet. Increasing pressures on fresh water supplies, agricultural land and fish stocks present unprecedented challenges, according to a new report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which says balancing human and environmental needs is an urgent priority that deserves increased attention and resources.

The State of World Population 2001 report says the balance between humanity's demands for fresh water and the quantity available is already precarious. Over the past 70 years, global population has tripled, from 2 to 6.1 billion, and water use has grown six-fold. The world population is projected to increase to 9.3 billion by 2050.

An estimated 508 million people live in 31 countries that already experience water stress or scarcity and the situation is expected to worsen in the next few decades. By 2025, it is predicted that 3 billion people will be living in 48 such countries.

Many countries use unsustainable means to meet their water needs. Some local aquifers are being depleted faster than rainfall can replenish them. The water tables under some cities in China, Latin America and South Asia are declining at over one metre per year.

Poor water quality is another problem. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 1 billion people do not have access to clean water. In developing countries, 90-95 per cent of sewage and 70 per cent of industrial wastes are dumped untreated into surface waters where they pollute the usable water supply. In many industrial countries, fertilizer and pesticide run-off and acid rain contaminate water supplies; expensive, energy-intensive filtration and treatment are required to restore acceptable water quality.

The report says purely technological solutions to water scarcity such as desalination and transporting icebergs are "likely to have limited effect." Instead it recommends restoring natural flow patterns to river systems, increasing water use efficiency—especially for irrigation, which uses two thirds of available fresh water—managing chemical use and animal wastes, curbing industrial air pollution, and instituting effective pricing policies.

On the question of food supply, the report states that over half the world's population—most of the people of the developing world—live in low-income, food-deficit countries that do not produce enough food to feed their people and cannot import sufficient food to close the gap. In many countries population growth has raced ahead of food production in recent years, especially in Africa. An estimated 2 billion people in developing countries already lack food security.

Soil degradation, chronic water shortages, inappropriate agricultural policies and rapid population growth are threatening food production capacities in many poor countries. The gap between production and demand for cereals is expected to jump to 24 million metric tons in South Asia and 27 million metric tons in sub-Saharan Africa by 2020.

Just 15 crops provide 90 per cent of the world's food intake and three of them—rice, wheat and maize (corn)—are the staple foods of 4 billion people. However, scientists are increasingly concerned about genetic erosion because wild strains of seeds are often used to improve crops. Since 1900 about three quarters of the genetic diversity of domestic agricultural crops has been lost due to environmental destruction. Unless the rate of loss is halted or slowed substantially, "as many as 60,000 plant species—roughly one quarter of the world's total—could be lost by 2025," the report states.

The ocean's fish stocks are also under threat. Over two thirds of the world's commercial marine fish stocks are fully exploited, over-fished, depleted, or slowly recovering, according to the report.

Only by doubling food production, improving distribution and protecting the environment can we ensure food security for the 8 million people that will inhabit the planet in 2025, the report concludes. Research suggests that the world's farmers will have to produce 40 per cent more grain by 2020 to meet rising demand.

Most of this projected increase will have to come from yield increases rather than the cultivation of new land. Between 1950 and 1996, the average amount of grain land per person dropped by almost half and is expected to decrease further as population increases. However, new high-yielding crop varieties require specialized fertilizers and pesticides, which may disturb the ecological balance and create new disease and pest problems.

The report recommends that countries reverse the current course of land and water degradation and actively protect their resource base, particularly topsoil and freshwater. This requires responsible governance—balancing many competing interests, community participation and local management, a commitment to food security, and international cooperation.

Another key recommendation is to increase access to education and health care—including reproductive health and family planning—to improve livelihoods and expand opportunities, especially for women; this would result in slower population growth and reduced pressure on the planet's resources.

UNFPA is the world's largest multilateral provider of population assistance to developing countries.