Author: Rita Sarin, Chair, WFP Trust For India
World Food Day is commemorated each year on the 16th of October to draw attention to the millions of people who live with severe food insecurity and remind individuals, communities, organisations, and governments worldwide of the actions required to tackle the challenges of hunger and malnutrition.
The theme for this year is “Water is Life, Water is Food. Leave No One Behind.” This highlights the crucial role of water in sustaining life on Earth and how it drives economies, supports nature, and serves as the foundation of our food.
Today, more people than ever before are experiencing severe hunger. WFP estimates that more than 345 million people are facing severe hunger. This is an increase of almost 200 million people compared to early 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic. Climate extremes are a significant contributor to global hunger, as evidenced by the fact that in 2022 alone, 56.8 million people faced acute food insecurity due to these conditions.
Water scarcity and vulnerability
Water availability variation affects every aspect of human life, especially food and nutrition security. For instance, agriculture accounts for 72 percent of global freshwater withdrawals. Rainfed systems are particularly vulnerable, as water availability directly and severely affects food and nutrition security. In India, about 60 percent of the country’s net sown area is rainfed, contributing to 40% of the total food production.
The planet’s water resources face increasing stress due to rapid population growth, urbanisation, economic development, and climate change. Unfortunately, freshwater resources per person have declined by 20 percent in recent decades, and water availability and quality are deteriorating alarmingly. This is primarily due to poor use and management, over-extraction of groundwater, pollution, and climate change. If we take appropriate measures, we can avoid pushing this valuable resource to a point of no return.
Currently, 2.4 billion people live in water-stressed countries, and many smallholder farmers, particularly women, Indigenous Peoples, migrants, and refugees, struggle to meet their daily needs. As water scarcity increases, competition for this priceless resource becomes a leading cause of conflict. Around 600 million people who depend, at least in part, on aquatic food systems for a living suffer the effects of pollution, ecosystem degradation, unsustainable practices, and climate change.
A quarter of the people worldwide use unsafe drinking water sources. Coupled with inadequate sanitation, this can affect how people prepare and eat their meals by increasing the incidence of waterborne diseases, a significant cause of malnutrition.
Reduced access to water for agriculture – and, of course, for people to drink – has implications for gender equality, education and peace, all hamper efforts to tackle the global food crisis.
Inadequate access to water increases the burden of water collection, which disproportionately falls on women and girls who spend 200 million hours every day collecting water – affecting their education and limiting opportunities for livelihood activities.
Insufficient water and sanitation facilities can result in school students, especially girls, missing significant time in class or even dropping out. Ingrained gender inequalities limit equal access to and availability of sufficient and nutritious food, pushing communities further into hunger.
Poor crop production due to insufficient water supplies can exacerbate conflicts and trigger social tensions in communities already under stress from existing vulnerabilities. Around 2 billion people live on land vulnerable to desertification, which could displace an estimated 50 million people by 2030.
Water, agriculture, and food security
Agriculture accounts for 72% of global freshwater withdrawals, but fresh water is not infinite like all natural resources. Today, 2.4 billion people live in water-stressed countries. Many smallholder farmers struggle to meet their daily needs, particularly women, Indigenous Peoples, migrants, and refugees. Competition for this priceless resource increases as water scarcity becomes an ever-increasing cause of conflict.
Around 600 million people who depend, at least partially, on aquatic food systems for a living suffer the effects of pollution, ecosystem degradation, unsustainable practices, and climate change.
Without adaptation measures, rainfed rice yields in India are projected to reduce by 20 percent in 2050 and 47 percent in 2080 scenarios, while irrigated rice yields are projected to decline by 3.5 percent in 2050 and 5 percent in 2080 scenarios. Wheat yields are projected to decrease by 19.3 percent in 2050 and 40 percent in 2080 scenarios towards the end of the century, while kharif maise yields could decline by 18 precent and 23 percent. In every design, climate change reduces crop yields and lowers the nutritional quality of produce.
Climate change can cause crop yield reduction and lower produce nutrition quality—extreme events, like droughts, impact food and nutrient consumption and farmers.
WFP is collaborating with the Government of Odisha to develop solutions for smallholder farmers, focusing on women. The goal is to enhance resilience through solar technologies, establish community-based climate advisory services to help manage climate impacts and promote a millet-value chain that reduces water usage and improves nutrition.
As a broader and overarching goal, governments and other stakeholders must work towards creating a climate-resilient food system. One way to make food systems more resilient is to implement early-warning strategies that help vulnerable communities prepare for weather-related shocks. Protecting communities and local food systems can also be achieved by restoring water resources, digging irrigation canals, and rebuilding natural barriers against climate extremes.
In 2021, WFP provided 8.7 million people across 49 countries with food assistance in exchange for asset-creation activities such as soil and water conservation, the building or fixing of irrigation canals, dams, ponds, dykes, as well as flood barriers.
Through land rehabilitation and management, ‘fixing’ encroaching dunes in coastal areas, planting trees or harnessing rainwater, WFP and its partners work with communities to restore water and soil productivity – improving people’s chances of building food-secure futures and better adapting to climate extremes.
We must focus on reducing humanitarian needs by empowering vulnerable communities and making them more resilient to crises.
The WFP collaborates with communities to prepare for water-related hazards by setting up early warning systems and financing in advance of any potential disasters. Additionally, the WFP provides insurance and financial safety nets to protect people against the impacts of climate change, offering payouts after a hazard occurs. In 2022, the WFP provided financial protection against climate events to 3.8 million individuals.
Awareness is needed of water’s crucial role in sustaining life on Earth and its vital contribution to our food supply. It also highlights the significance of managing our water resources wisely, considering the threats of rapid population growth, economic development, urbanisation, and climate change.
Finally, social protection, particularly safety net programs, can help build resilience for vulnerable populations before a crisis and reduce the impact of food insecurity and poverty when problems occur.