Hungrier Planet Strains Water Supply

Food, agriculture are largest users of world's water

Demand for water is growing along with population, especially as the demand for food increases.
This year on World Water Day, Thursday, March 22, the United Nations highlights the critical role water plays in food security, at a time when water supplies are already under severe strain in many parts of the world.

Thirsty food

Water. As the population grows, there are more and more people at the tap every day. But when it comes to the world’s demand for water, drinking it is just the beginning

“Food - and agriculture in particular - is by far the largest user of water,” says  Pasquale Steduto, the head of water programs at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of the water drawn from rivers and aquifers worldwide.

So, while each person drinks about two to three liters of water per day, it takes roughly 200 liters to produce that person’s daily diet of maize. Bread takes 270 liters. Rice? 420. And the meat to go with it takes even more water. Pork: 930 liters for a day’s serving. Lamb: 1400 liters. And beef is the thirstiest of all: 2400 liters.

While each person drinks about two-to-three liters of water per day, agriculture accounts for 70 percent of the water drawn from rivers and aquifers worldwide.
While each person drinks about two-to-three liters of water per day, agriculture accounts for 70 percent of the water drawn from rivers and aquifers worldwide.

And the demand for water is growing along with the demand for food.

“We are expecting another two billion, if not more, people coming in the next 40 years," Steduto says. "We are already in a situation of water-scarce conditions."


Water is scarce in some places because farmers are pumping it out of the ground faster than it can recharge, according to the head of water policy for the US State Department, Aaron Salzberg.

“The groundwater is getting depleted to the point where that will have an impact on food security," he says. "If you look at India, for example, in the breadbasket up in the northwestern part of the country, over-extraction is a huge, huge issue and this is going to start to play a role in their ability to produce food and to meet their internal needs.”

Over-extracting groundwater for irrigation is also a huge issue in major farming regions of China, the United States and elsewhere.

Waiting for rain

On the other hand, much of sub-Saharan Africa has the opposite problem: not enough irrigation. Most African farmers depend on rainfall, which is becoming less reliable with climate change.

"This rainfall is not being predictable, putting the land at higher risk," says Steduto, "so we cannot predict or anticipate how much food we are going to produce.”

Producing more food for more people with less water in the coming years will be a challenge.

But there are solutions. Low-tech treadle pumps for farmers who need irrigation. Drip irrigation for farmers who need to squeeze more crop per drop. And eating less meat in countries that already overconsume it, just to name a few.

Making changes

“We know how to do it. We need to make this into practice," says Steduto, "so, from that side, that we have a solution, I am optimistic.”

But making changes takes time. And Steduto is less optimistic about the pace of change. So is the State Department’s Aaron Salzberg.

“I think it’s the lack of political will," Salzberg says. "The fact that governments just haven’t made the decision to make this a priority.”

But experts say that making that decision may no longer be up to those governments, as climate change threatens water supplies already stressed by a growing population.

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam Wari
Katherine Gypson
May 25, 2015 1:32 AM
For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.

Video On Film: How Dance Defies Iran's Political Oppression

'Desert Dancer' by filmmaker Richard Raymond is based on the true story of a group of young Iranians, who form an underground dance troupe in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is the latest in a genre of films that focus on dance as a form of freedom of expression against political oppression and social injustice. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.

Video Turkey's Ruling Party Trying to Lure Voters in Opposition Stronghold

Turkey’s AK (Justice and Development) Party is seeking a fourth successive general election victory, with the goal of securing two-thirds of the seats in Parliament to rewrite the constitution and change the country's parliamentary system into a presidential one. To achieve that, the party will need to win seats in opposition strongholds like the western city of Izmir. Dorian Jones reports.

Video Millions Flock to Ethiopia Polls

Millions of Ethiopians cast their votes Sunday in the first national election since the 2012 death of longtime leader Meles Zenawi. Mr. Meles' party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, is almost certain of victory again. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Addis Ababa.

Video Scientists Testing Space Propulsion by Light

Can the sun - the heart of our solar system - power a spacecraft to the edge of our solar system? The answer may come from a just-launched small satellite designed to test the efficiency of solar sail propulsion. Once deployed, its large sail will catch the so-called solar wind and slowly reach what scientists hope to be substantial speed. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video FIFA Trains Somali Referees

As stability returns to the once lawless nation of Somalia, the world football governing body, FIFA, is helping to rebuild the country’s sport sector by training referees as well as its young footballers. Abdulaziz Billow has more from Mogadishu.

Video With US Child Obesity Rates on the Rise, Program Promotes Health Eating

In its fifth year, FoodCorps puts more than 180 young Americans into 500 schools across the United States, where they focus on teaching students about nutrition, engaging them with hands-on activities, and improving their access to healthy foods whether in the cafeteria or the greater community. Aru Pande has more.

Video Virginia Neighborhood Draws People to Nostalgic Main Street

In the U.S., people used to grow up in small towns with a main street lined by family-owned shops and restaurants. Today, however, many main streets are worn down and empty because shoppers have been lured away by shopping malls. But in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia, main street is thriving. VOA’s Deborah Block reports it has a nostalgic feel with its small restaurants and unique stores.

VOA Blogs