By Linda Esteli Mendez, EDF Tom Graff Fellow
Recognizing the importance of freshwater to the health and vitality of the world's people, the United Nations General Assembly designated March 22nd, 1992 as the first "World Water Day." Each year a new theme related to freshwater is celebrated on March 22nd. This year's theme is water and food security.
How is freshwater related to food security?
The US Department of Agriculture defines food security as, "access by all members at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life." At the same time, many argue that how that food is made and delivered is an important part of food security. Are we supplying food in a way that is healthy and sustainable for primary environmental resources? Are we using sustainable amounts of freshwater and are we ensuring that our food production is minimizing pollution on freshwater resources?
Last century, population growth increased twofold and agriculture doubled food production. However, while feeding the world, agriculture has become the biggest water user and irrigation claims 70% of all freshwater for human use. Is it any wonder then that water supplies for food has been and still remains a core issue to food security?
Climate change poses risks to water supplies and food security
One need look no further than Texas or Mexico to see the impacts of climate change on water and food security. According to Bloomberg Business Week, the "driest year in Texas history has caused record-setting agricultural losses, costing the state's farmers and ranchers about $7.62 billion in 2011, the Texas AgriLife Extension Service said Wednesday."
And in a special series on PBS Newshour, climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University told PBS that, “What climate change is doing is it’s increasing our temperatures, and higher temperatures mean faster evaporation,” she says, “So you need more water to provide the same amount of irrigation for crops if temperatures are higher. And that’s what we see happening here in Texas and in many places around the world.”
In Mexico, "the water shortage wiped out millions of acres of farmland this winter, caused 15 billion pesos ($1.18 billion) in lost harvests, killed 60,000 head of cattle and weakened 2 million more livestock, pushing food prices higher in Mexico," according to a report in Reuters.
What are the solutions for protecting freshwater and food supplies into the future?
At EDF, we believe that sustaining and improving the resilience of our ecosystems is a key answer to that question. Ecosystems — whether they are forests or rice fields, wetlands or grazing lands — provide a variety of environmental services but are at the same time vulnerable to climate change impacts. Maintaining healthy ecosystems to ensure water supply, water quality and other environmental services is thus essential. With an ecosystem services approach, environmental services (such as water supply, food production and outdoor recreation) are recognized and valued, trade-offs are managed and short-term gains do not undermine the long-term benefits that environmental services provide and that are critical for resilience. In general, improving resilience through an ecosystem services approach should reduce our vulnerability to climate change.
The Center for Conservation Incentives at EDF is working hard to conserve water resources in the United States. We believe that farmers are at the heart of any process of change. As natural stewards of our land and water resources, farmers can be in the driver seat in practices that conserve water supply and water quality. Farmers have the opportunity to be compensated for their stewardship while being part of the solution for providing clean water and stabilizing the resilience of our ecosystems.
The Mokelumne Watershed Environmental Benefits Program is a model of how farmers can voluntarily work together with other land stewards to improve the quality of freshwater supplies while lowering the costs of water supply to downstream users. By creating a framework where environmental services are tracked and traded, the program substantially increases both the amount and effectiveness of environmental stewardship. Under this vision, landowners and other stewards will be compensated for undertaking sustainable management practices and restoration activities. By providing incentives, we will foster a healthier ecosystem in the Mokelumne watershed, sustaining and improving its environmental services, while reducing costs.
On World Water Day we offer the Mokelumne Watershed Environmental Benefits Program as an example of the imperative of providing incentives to farmers and foresters for protecting our freshwater resources far into the future, but we also remember that we still have a long way to go to secure healthy ecosystems for the sustainment of all life.
Linda Esteli Mendez has roots in Nicaragua. Shaped by her country's historical social struggle, since an early stage she decided to commit her life to social and environmental justice issues. She is an alumni from the Pan-American School of Agriculture, Zamorano University in Honduras (2007), and holds two master degrees, one in International Land and Water Management from Wageningen University, the Netherlands, and the other in Agricultural Public Policies from the Institute of Tropical Regions of Montpellier SupAgro, France. She has worked on a diverse array of rural development projects including, irrigation in Nicaragua, microfinance for women in Senegal, amongst others. Before joining EDF, she completed an honors research project on land and water reform processes in South Africa followed by an internship with International Rivers. She is happy to be working with EDF on the Mokelumne Watershed Environmental Benefits Program that creates solutions for freshwater supply and quality in California.