The headline of this editorial is the theme of this year’s United Nations World Food Day (WFD), which falls tomorrow (October 16). This year’s WFD is being marked amidst a calamitous time for the world’s food supply and food security, given the tensions in Ukraine and the Middle East, the loss of harvests due to freak weather events caused by Climate Change, rising inflation, supply chain issues and a general downturn in the global economy.
Climate Change has focused our attention on the importance of water for life itself, not just for food production. Water makes up over 50 percent of our bodies and covers about 71 percent of the Earth’s surface. But only 2.5 percent of water on Earth is fresh, suitable for drinking, agriculture, and most industrial uses. Agriculture accounts for 72 percent of global freshwater use, but like most other natural resources, fresh water is not infinite.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the lead UN agency for WFD celebrations, rapid population growth, urbanisation, economic development, and Climate Change are putting the planet’s water resources under increasing stress.
Moreover, freshwater resources per person have declined 20 percent in the past decades and water availability and quality are deteriorating fast due to decades of poor use and management, over extraction of groundwater, pollution and Climate Change. In the words of the FAO “we risk stretching this precious resource to a point of no return”.
In fact, around 2.4 billion (out of 8 billion) people live in water-stressed countries. Many are smallholder farmers who already struggle to meet their daily needs. Rural women and children, indigenous peoples, migrants, and refugees are also adversely affected by the lack of access to water. Competition for water is increasing, leading to conflicts between countries.
While water on its own is essential for life, it is also a source of food – mainly fish and other aquatic organisms. Around 600 million people who depend on aquatic food systems for a living are suffering from the effects of pollution, ecosystem degradation, unsustainable practices and Climate Change.
They include small-scale fishers, fish farmers, fish processors, as well as their dependents. They are the backbone of coastal and inland communities.
The FAO notes that the diversity of aquatic food systems makes them a unique and essential source of nutrition and food security.
Aquatic foods are increasingly recognised for their potential to combat malnutrition, due to rich essential nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals that are vital for human health.
In landlocked countries and countries where people in the hinterland cannot access seawater fish, freshwater fish has become a lifeline for nutrition at a lower cost than poultry or meat.
Given the need to preserve the planet’s precious water resources, we need to produce more food and other essential agricultural commodities with less water, while ensuring water is distributed equally and aquatic food systems are preserved.
The FAO’s motto “nobody should be left behind” aptly sums up what should be done in sharing our precious water resources.
Food and water security must be taken up more seriously by policy planners. Actually, both these are vital planks for national security of any country.
In Sri Lanka, the economic crisis of 2022 led to a shortage of certain imported essentials for a few months and to a spike in food inflation. Even the local harvest was affected by the arbitrary organic fertiliser move of the previous administration.
These issues have now been addressed to a great extent but it is vital to keep a tab on food security and water security. Sri Lanka currently has no water shortage per se, but drought and other Climate Change factors have wreaked havoc in recent times.
More foods should be grown locally to minimise our dependence on imports. The home garden concept, which gained traction during the pandemic years, should be revived. One need not have a garden per se for this – even apartment dwellers can grow some fruits and vegetables in pots.
It is also vital to resolve the perennial issue of Post-Harvest Losses (PHL), which literally wastes around 40 percent of our vegetable and fruit harvests.
Better transport, storage and preservation methods must be introduced to prevent or minimise PHL. Farmers and wholesale/retail traders too must be made aware of the need to minimise PHL.
It is also time that the authorities introduce a long-term National Food/Agriculture and Water Policy that would not change whenever Governments change.
Even the organic fertiliser fiasco would have been prevented if a firm policy was in place in respect of fertiliser use within the broader context of an agriculture policy.
Hence the need for an agriculture and water policy that cannot be changed willy-nilly by any incoming Head of State or Government, without extensive consultations in Parliament and the wider society. This should serve as the foundation for improving the country’s agriculture outlook up to 2048, when Sri Lanka is targeting developed country status.