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Water security and agriculture: The human factor

The phrase “water security” is being used more often in the media these days.  But what does it mean?  How does it relate to those of us who are concerned with crop production and soil science?

barge on a river

It is almost impossible to define water security simply.  Like the phrase “polar vortex,” it is a combination of simple words used to describe complex ideas. Water security means having enough water, on an ongoing basis, to sustain human life, well-being, and economic development. It encompasses protections from water-borne diseases and pollution. It relates to having safeguards in place against water-related disasters. Finally, it means preserving the resource in a climate of peace and political stability. 

In a recent Agronomy Journal paper, sociologist Lois Wright Morton explains what it will take to achieve water security as it relates to agriculture. The bad news: because water is used by so many competing sectors of society, achieving water security in any one area is an almost impossibly complex task. The good news: leaders are thinking about it and actively defining ways to enable progress.

Wright Morton’s paper further teaches us that “agriculture is a critical sector in all societies. It affects water security, food security, and bioenergy.” Agriculture accounts for over 60% of groundwater demand. It is a primary source of pollution, especially nitrogen and phosphorus, into our surface waters. Around the world, it is expanding, often into highly erodible lands, floodplains, and former wetlands.

These activities, both purposeful and unintended, have consequences.  “They affect the protection, degradation, and restoration of agro-ecosystems,” says Wright Morton. She further defines the technical challenges ahead, among them managing soil-water interactions to:

  • Reduce runoff and soil loss,
  • Improve nutrient cycling,
  • Increase water infiltration and storage; and,
  • Increase resilience to variable and extreme weather events.

Her main premise, however, is a new concept. “Although science can provide many fixes, there are external factors - having nothing to do with science - that play a pivotal role as well.  These are the human, sociological factors,” she says.

Concerns for access and availability is forcing dialog across a spectrum of human social systems including urban versus rural interests and industry versus regulatory agencies. “The social definition of water security is what will drive the willingness and capacity to act. The ways in which governments, markets, and civil society communicate with each other is key,” says Wright Morton. 

cypress trees in water

She calls for leaders today to focus on several concepts that will help bring about water security in agriculture:

  • To recognize that water security is a systems problem. Healthy agro-ecosystems are necessary to a healthy hydrological cycle.
  • To develop strategies that incorporate soil performance/health improvement into crop production planning.
  • To build the social infrastructures necessary to enable education and adoption of soil-water management techniques. We need to start talking in terms of an “eco-economy,” where management balances public good with private benefits.

Achieving water security is not optional.  It is an absolute necessity. There are 1.1 billion people in developing countries who already have inadequate access to water. As growing numbers of people live in urban areas, and climate change makes some regions more prone to drought, water will become an ever-scarcer resource. By 2030, 3.9 billion people will inhabit areas with severe water stress. That is almost half the world’s population.

Wright Morton believes that once people understand that water security is a growing problem, due to all human activities in all the sectors, they will eventually support taking additional steps – individually and governmentally – to protect and preserve the resource. 

To access the full journal article, visit http://dx.doi.org/doi:10.2134/agronj14.0039