by Monique Broumels

Life's nectar under threat

Water security is as important as food security
water and food.jpg

Water security is a large and complex problem – not least in the important role that it plays in the health of the nation in terms of fresh drinking water and sanitation. However, there is a secondary and equally important role that it has to play in the health and growth of a nation and that is as one of the primary factors that water plays in growing crops.

In addition to the worries that climatic change brings, “the long-term climatic risk to agricultural assets and agricultural production that can be linked to water cannot be known with any certainty,” the Food and Agriculture Organization (FOA) of the United Nations states in its water report, Climate Change, Water and Food Security.

The report emphasises that “the assessment of viable and effective adaptations to the impacts of climate change on water and agriculture will require a sound understanding and integration of agronomic science with water management and hydrology.” This is even more important as the report cites that agriculture is constantly developing and, as population grows, becomes more and more intensive in land and water resource use.

Along with this is the impact that agriculture has on natural eco-systems that eventually have an impact on climate change and hence on the availability of water. “Climate change will significantly impact agriculture by increasing water demand, limiting crop productivity and by reducing water availability in areas where irrigation is most needed or has a comparative advantage,” the FOA report states.

A symptom of rising prosperity

The FOA also sites that as populations grow and become affluent, the demands on food change too. Grains are viewed as secondary to the demand for luxury food products such as fruit and vegetables, milk and meat increases. These are all foods which take more water to produce and the production of animal products are significantly more inefficient in using resources in their production.  

There is an interconnection between South Africa’s growing population and water and food security – a litre of water is needed to produce each calorie consumed by a human.

FOA states that while food demands are likely to rise by 70% by 2050, in developing countries, such as South Africa, this increase in demand is likely to double. In other words, there is likely to be a 100% increase in food demand by 2050. Considering the resource of water in South Africa that is known to be cyclical in terms of rainfall, the production of food to meet these demands is to say the least concerning when South Africa is not in a rain-plenty cycle.

As yet, the new South African government has not had to deal with a drought situation that affects farmers and the production of crops and food in South Africa. Understanding and making provision for water security is crucial to the stability of the country and this is only from a food security point of view which doesn’t include drinking water, sanitation, the water used in energy production and other industries that are essential to the country such as mining.

Sharing water with neighbours

A solution in terms of food security and its reliance on water, for the southern tip of the continent would be to grow the agricultural sectors of countries such as Zambia, where there is more than enough rainfall on a continuous basis, the Mail and Guardian reported. 

“Johan van Rooyen, the National Director of Planning at the Department of Water Affairs, believes this would reduce the burden on South Africa to provide cheap water for irrigation – over 60% of our water is used for irrigation – and also stimulate neighbouring countries.” the report stated.

Drought resistant farming

Drought resistant farming is one way of conserving water where it is not readily available. In addition, practices that aid drought-resistant farming aid in crop yields under other extreme weather conditions and aid in the reduction of the use of chemicals. “Ecological farms that work with biodiversity and are knowledge-intensive rather than chemical input-intensive might be the most resilient options under a drier and more erratic climate,” states Ecological Farming: Drought-Resistant Agriculture, a paper published by Greenpeace laboratory at Exeter University.

“Biodiversity and a healthy soil are central to ecological approaches to making farming more drought-resistant and more resilient to extreme events,” the paper adds. The addition of excessive nitrate fertilisers to soil might address the problem of enriching nitrogen in the soil by adding these fertilisers, which usually only consist of urea as the nitrate-rich source, causes nutritional imbalances in the soil, increases acidification and reduces the soil’s ability to hold water.

There are many proven practices available to farmers right now to help build healthy soils. Cover crops and crop residues that protect soils from wind and water erosion, and legume intercrops, manure and composts that build soil rich in organic matter, enhancing soil structure, are all ways to help increase water inīŦltration, hold water once it gets there, and make nutrients more accessible to the plant.

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