"Making the wells even deeper so food can be cultivated locally is not a sustainable manner of working", Petra Hellegers, Professor of Water Resources Management at Wageningen University argues. "In countries where water is in short supply – Jemen, for example – it would be more logical to move the cultivation of crops that need a lot of water to areas where water is in abundance – East Africa, Brazil, North Australia – and to import food."
The scarcity of fresh water in many places in the world can mainly be blamed on large-scale irrigation systems installed during the last century in precisely those regions with little rainfall. Those systems depend very much on water transported from elsewhere. At the same time Hellegers has noticed that there are places in the world where the rainfall is considerable, but where hardly any benefits are reaped from it.
Transfer production to wet areas
"China is buying up large areas of land in Africa in order to implement agriculture on a large scale. There is a lot of criticism, especially regarding the manner in which this is happening. But to feed the world it is necessary to exploit the agricultural potential of these areas more efficiently; in areas of high rainfall, the yields could be increased considerably", says Hellegers.
"Water re-allocation is a question of political negotiation", the professor realises. She emphasises that scientists such as herself can only provide insight into the consequences of choices made on using water for food production. "Obviously, the policymakers decide." Scientific analyses help them underpin their choices properly, but Hellegers realises that various aspects play a role in decision-making. "Transferring food production to areas beyond one’s own boundaries means, for example, that countries become dependent on one another. Cooperation is then crucial for global food security."