Trade can be key to balancing the conservation of natural freshwater sources and food security

Published on
May 14, 2019

A Wageningen University & Research study published in the journal Nature Sustainability, evaluated whether “water for the environment” could be prioritized under growing competition from other sectors. The results indicate that this could be achieved by shifting crop production from water scarce to water abundant regions and by tripling international food trade.

The call to conserve or restore the ecological health and functioning of rivers and wetlands for human use and biodiversity is gaining traction worldwide. In many countries such efforts are already being supported by national and regional policies and legislation. To successfully implement these efforts, methods have been developed to define environmental flows – the quantity, timing, and quality of water flows required to sustain freshwater and estuarine ecosystems, as well as the human livelihoods and wellbeing that depend on them. However, global freshwater resources are increasingly under pressure, with about 70% of water abstracted from freshwater ecosystems being used for the irrigation of agricultural crops. Around 40% of our food is in fact produced on irrigated lands, while the demand for water from industry, energy, and municipalities is also set to increase in the future.

Trade as a buffer for enforcement

The research team aimed to understand the impact that strong protection and enforcement of environmental flow requirements have on food security and to what extent the trade of crop and livestock products between countries would be able to buffer the impacts of enforcing. The results indicate that it could be possible to maintain both food security and environmental flow requirements by 2050, despite the growing population and the rising impacts of climate change. Environmental regulations on water abstractions, sustainable food production and deforestation are fundamental to avoiding environmental degradation.

“Water resources should be carefully managed between human needs and ecosystem requirements, to ensure a sustainable future for humanity. Understanding how the trade-offs for sustainability and development goals play out at local context is therefore extremely important,” says lead author of the study Amandine Pastor, Wageningen University & Research alumna who is currently associated with the Institute of Research for Development in France and the University of Lisbon in Portugal.

Not only the amount of water needed matters, but where it is used

Previous global assessments of the food-water-environment nexus – the linkage between food, water and environment, where actions in one area can have effects on the other – did not adequately take into account the water requirements of freshwater ecosystems. “This is one of the first analyses that quantifies the effect of a strict protection of aquatic ecosystems on water withdrawals, global food production and trade flows,” explains Hester Biemans, co-author of the study and researcher at Wageningen Environmental Research. “We show that, in order to sustainably produce our food while respecting environmental needs, some of the larger food producing areas will need to be relocated from water scarce to water abundant regions. It is not always the amount of water needed to grow food that matters most, more important is where that water amount was used.”

Fulco Ludwig, co-author of the study and Professor Water and Climate at Wageningen University, emphasises the importance to take future water availability into account when planning future land use: “Irrigation systems should only be developed in areas where also in the future sufficient water is available. Climate change will change water availability and to ensure that sufficient water is available for both natural ecosystems and food production we should adapt our water use strategies.”