Water scarcity in Europe: is the food system a cause or casualty?
Water is a crucial part of our food system, but with challenges such as over-consumption, pollution and climate change, what more needs to be done to reduce water consumption, prevent irreversible damage to the environment, and decrease water scarcity?
Water is necessary for all aspects of life. As human beings, we depend on this valuable resource to survive, as well as to grow our food and nourish Earth’s ecosystems. However, despite this total reliance on water, the growth of the human population has put huge pressure on our water sources. Water use has been growing globally at more than twice the rate of the population in the last century, with two-thirds of the population predicted to be living under ‘water stress’ by 2050 if current consumption patterns continue (1).
The food system as a cause of water scarcity
Water scarcity is complex and caused by a range of factors, including climate change, overconsumption and pollution. This includes rapidly growing urban areas putting pressure on nearby water sources, an increase in domestic water use, climate change altering temperatures and weather patterns, different types of water pollution such as chemical and groundwater pollution, and the growth of water-intensive sectors such as agriculture (1).
Demand for water to grow crops and livestock has grown by 100% in the last century (2) and farming accounts for approximately 70% of all freshwater withdrawals (freshwater taken from ground or surface water sources and conveyed to a place of use) (3). When compared to crop production, livestock farming is extremely water intensive, and as meat consumption continues to increase across the world (4), water use will grow alongside it. For example, approximately 1,250 litres of water are needed to produce 1kg of lentils, whereas 13,000 litres are needed to produce the same 1kg of beef (3).
The agricultural sector as a whole is also responsible for up to 78% of global ocean and freshwater pollution (5). Agricultural activities can discharge agrochemicals, drug residues, sediments and organic matter into water bodies (6), putting aquatic ecosystems, human health and other food production activities at risk.
The food system as a casualty of water scarcity
Changing weather patterns and increased drought as a result of climate change means farmers and food producers are increasingly faced with new water-related challenges. Rainfed agriculture is still the most common method of agriculture in developing nations, with approximately 80% of the land farmed around the world relying on regular, natural rainfall for irrigation (7). This means that changing weather and rainfall patterns can have a huge impact on agricultural production, resulting in knock-on effects such as reduced income for farmers and decreased food availability and security.
This can put smallholder farmers at increased risk of water scarcity, as they may not have the financial means to introduce new adaptation technologies on their farms or, equally, to introduce climate mitigation measures. Approximately 84% of the economic impact of drought falls on agriculture and farmers, which often results in smallholder farms having to close down or transition to growing more drought-resistant crops (8). This highlights the need to ensure solutions are available for the whole farming community and that innovation efforts are supported and financed fairly so that solutions can become affordable for all.
Water scarcity in Europe
With the combination of pollution and over consumption, droughts and water scarcity are no longer considered rare or extreme events in Europe (9). Approximately 20% of European land and 30% of European people are currently affected by water scarcity every year (9). In early July 2022, Italy declared a state of emergency in five northern regions due to extreme droughts and lack of rainfall. The northern agricultural region Po valley, which includes the peninsula's largest water reservoir, has been particularly affected, with 30% of national agricultural production threatened by the drought (10).
Water scarcity is predicted to become more prominent as our climate changes. Regions across Europe are already seeing drastic impacts on drought frequency and changing weather patterns such as rainfall and storm intensity as a direct result of climate change. The southern and south-western regions of Europe are predicted to experience up to a 40% river decline under a 3°C temperature rise scenario (9), causing fears of widespread water insecurity. Southern European countries such as Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Italy and Turkey are projected to face increased water shortages over the next decade, with knock-on effects for other industries such as reduced hydropower resources in the Mediterranean region (11).
How can the food system conserve freshwater and reduce water consumption?
The food system has a huge role to play in reducing water consumption; both within agricultural practices and across the wider food value chain in areas such as food processing, packaging and storage. There is not a single solution to this challenge, and an inclusive systems innovation approach which requires all parts of the food system to work together to create solutions that benefit everyone is needed if we are going to succeed.
One example of this approach is the EIT Water Scarcity Programme which aims to enhance knowledge and overcome barriers to tackle water scarcity in southern Europe by enabling innovation, entrepreneurship, education and communication. This includes reducing water waste, increasing water efficiency and re-use, improving water quality control and increasing climate change resilience.
Specifically, the programme is supporting scaleups and SMEs that are creating solutions to water-related challenges in their daily operations, creating a network of experts with a specific focus on water governance, financial schemes and legal enforcement, and sharing knowledge between businesses, stakeholders and individuals to foster the adoption of a water saving culture in Europe.
Technology has the potential to play a huge role in reducing water consumption in the agricultural sector. The use of satellite technology, for example, can support farmers to transition to ‘smart farming’ whereby agricultural activities are monitored and optimised using data analysis and insights. Agricolus, a member of the EIT Food RisingFoodStars network, is an Italian startup using a cloud platform which helps farmers to forecast and increase yield, prevent and monitor pests and disease and, crucially, reduce the use of inputs such as fertiliser, treatments and water. Technologies such as this provide great potential to transform the way we produce food by helping farmers to increase their water efficiency as well as their yield.
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A dietary shift to reduce the amount of animal products we consume could also help to reduce water scarcity. With bovine, sheep, goat, pig and chicken meat, as well as eggs and milk, all having higher water footprints than fruits and vegetables (12), the increased uptake of plant-based foods could form part of the solution to water scarcity. Learn about some of the startups and innovators in the EIT Food community creating alternative protein solutions here.
We know that nature, health and food are all interconnected. By protecting our natural resources, limiting the impacts of climate change and preserving water, food productivity will become more efficient, and both food and water security will increase. Our food system is both a cause and casualty of water scarcity, but we must work together to find solutions that work with nature, for nature.
To learn more about the solutions working to reduce the food system’s water consumption, increase water security and build better relationships between food and nature, find out how you can get involved with the EIT Food community here.
- FAO: Land & Water: Water scarcity
- WRI: Domestic water use grew 600% over the past 50 years
- FAO: Water Scarcity – One of the greatest challenges of our time
- Poore, J., & Nemecek, T. (2018): Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science, 360(6392), 987-992.
- FAO: Water pollution from agriculture: a global review
- FAO: OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2021-2030
- The Water Project: Water scarcity and agriculture
- FAO: Coping with water scarcity in agriculture: a global framework for action in a changing climate
- European Environment Agency: Water stress is a major and growing concern in Europe
- EIT Food: Water scarcity in Southern Europe: How EIT and its knowledge and innovation communities are contributing to one of the biggest threats of the decade
- The Guardian: Italy declares state of emergency in drought-hit northern regions
- WEF: Which foods need the most water to produce?