29.09.2022 |

Almost 1 million people are facing starvation, UN report warns

Millions of people are living from hand to mouth (Photo: CC0)

The number of people facing acute food insecurity worldwide will continue to rise very quickly as the food crisis tightens its grip on several ‘hunger hotspots’ identified by a new UN report. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) warn that millions of people are facing starvation and death if humanitarian assistance is not scaled up rapidly. Rising conflict, weather extremes, and economic instability aggravated by the lingering impacts of COVID-19 and the effects of the war in Ukraine are among the key drivers of acute food security, the two organisations said in a joint press release. The report released on September 21 says there are 17 countries and 2 regional clusters - the 19 hunger hotspots - where parts of the population will likely face a significant deterioration of already high levels of acute food insecurity during the outlook period from October 2022 to January 2023, putting lives and livelihoods at risk. The report focuses on the hunger crisis in the Horn of Africa, where the longest drought in over 40 years is forecast to continue. The fifth consecutive failed rainy season will be aggravating the situation. “The severe drought in the Horn of Africa has pushed people to the brink of starvation, destroying crops and killing livestock on which their survival depends. Acute food insecurity is rising fast and spreading across the world,” said FAO Director-General QU Dongyu. “People in the poorest countries in particular who have yet to recover from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic are suffering from the ripple effects of ongoing conflicts, in terms of prices, food and fertilizer supplies, as well as the climate emergency,” he added.

The report uses the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), an index agreed on by the international community as a global reference for the classification of food insecurity which includes 5 phases. People in IPC/CH Phase 3 and above are in urgent need of assistance. In phase 3, households are at crisis level and urgent action is needed to protect livelihoods and reduce food consumption gaps. At emergency level 4, lives and livelihoods are at risk because households have large food consumption gaps which are reflected in very high acute malnutrition and excess mortality. At IPC Phase 5 (Catastrophe level), starvation, death, destitution and extremely critical acute malnutrition levels are evident. The new report sounds the alarm because globally, an all-time high of 970,000 people are expected to face catastrophic hunger (IPC Phase 5) and are starving or projected to starve due to catastrophic conditions in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen, if no action is taken. This number is ten times higher than six years ago when only two countries had populations in Phase 5. Around 45 million people in 37 countries are projected to have so little to eat that they will be severely malnourished, at risk of death or already facing starvation and death (IPC/CH Phase 4 and above). A total of 222 million people in 53 countries/territories are expected to be in need of urgent assistance (IPC/CH Phase 3 or above).

The situation is especially alarming in the Horn of Africa: Up to 26 million people are expected to face Crisis or worse (IPC Phase 3 and above) levels of food insecurity in Somalia, southern and eastern Ethiopia, and northern and eastern Kenya. In Somalia, a likely fifth below‑average rainy season, combined with high food prices and persistent conflict, is rapidly driving an extreme deprivation of food, with parts of Bay region likely to experience famine in the context of critical gaps in funding levels to support humanitarian assistance in the last quarter of the year. Overall, 6.7 million people are expected to face high levels of acute food insecurity (IPC Phase 3 and above) in the outlook period, including 2.2 million people in Emergency (IPC Phase 4) and at least 300 000 people in Catastrophe (IPC Phase 5). “Without an adequate humanitarian response, analysts expect that by December, as many as four children or two adults per 10 000 people will die every day. Hundreds of thousands are already facing starvation today with staggering levels of malnutrition expected among children under 5,” the two organisations warn in their press release. “This is the third time in 10 years that Somalia has been threatened with a devastating famine. The famine in 2011 was caused by two consecutive failed rainy seasons as well as conflict. Today we’re staring at a perfect storm: a likely fifth consecutive failed rainy season that will see drought lasting well into 2023,” said WFP’s Executive Director David Beasley. “But the people at the sharp end of today’s crisis are also facing soaring food prices and severely limited opportunities to earn a living following the pandemic. We urgently need to get help to those in grave danger of starvation in Somalia and the world’s other hunger hotspots.” The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Kenya, the Sahel, the Sudan and Syria also remain ‘of very high concern’ with deteriorating conditions. The alert is also extended to the Central African Republic and Pakistan. Guatemala, Honduras and Malawi have recently been added to the list of hotspot countries, joining Madagascar, Sri Lanka, and Zimbabwe.

Violent conflict remains the primary driver of acute hunger and a continuation of this trend is projected in 2022, with particular concern for Ethiopia, where an intensification of conflict and interethnic violence in several regions is expected to further escalate, driving up humanitarian needs. Climate change is also taking its toll. Weather extremes such as floods, tropical storms and droughts remain critical drivers in many parts of the globe, and a “new normal” of consecutive and extreme weather events is becoming clear - particularly in the hotspots. For example, devastating floods have affected 33 million people in Pakistan alone this year and South Sudan faces a fourth consecutive year of extreme flooding. Meanwhile, a third consecutive season of below-average rainfall is projected in Syria. In addition, for the first time in 20 years, the La Niña climate event has continued through three consecutive years – affecting agriculture and causing crop and livestock losses in many parts of the world, including Afghanistan, West and East Africa and Syria. Another factor are economic risks. The persistently high global prices of food, fuel and fertilizer continue to drive high domestic prices and economic instability. Rising inflation rates have forced governments to introduce monetary-tightening measures in advanced economies which have also increased the cost of credit of low-income countries. This is constraining the ability of heavily indebted countries – the number of countries increased significantly in recent years – to finance the import of essential items, says the report.

The two organisations call for urgent humanitarian action to save lives and livelihoods and prevent famine in hotspot countries, especially Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen. “Without a massively scaled up humanitarian response that has at its core time-sensitive and life-saving agricultural assistance, the situation will likely worsen in many countries in the coming months,” said FAO Director-General QU Dongyu. The report highlights that insecurity, administrative and bureaucratic impediments, movement restrictions and physical barriers severely limit humanitarian responders’ access to people facing acute hunger in eleven of the hotspot countries. It presents country-specific recommendations for each of the hunger hotspots on priorities for anticipatory action – short-term protective measures to be put in place before new humanitarian needs materialize; as well as emergency response – actions to address existing humanitarian needs. In the case of Somalia, for example, the authors recommend a number of anticipatory actions such as support for social protection and humanitarian programs to avert the loss of livelihoods and asset depletion. Another measure is to build social cohesion to reduce tension over access to dwindling common resources such as water (for human and livestock) and pasture. The emergency response would require USD 624.4 million for food security and livelihoods, and USD 178.8 million for nutrition interventions. It is also necessary to scale up lifesaving emergency food, cash, health, water, sanitation and hygiene as well as nutrition services through more proactive approaches, including mobile health and nutrition services in hotspot districts. The authors also recommend to expand the delivery of life‑saving food and nutrition assistance to populations living in hard‑to‑reach areas and areas that have remained inaccessible so far. (ab)

21.09.2022 |

Acute hunger is increasing in world’s climate hotspots, Oxfam

Global warming will decrease yields (Photo: CC0)

Ten of the world’s worst affected “climate hotspots” – those with the highest number of UN appeals driven by extreme weather events – are also plunging into deeper hunger. According to new research published by Oxfam International, acute hunger has more than doubled in those countries over the past six years. The development organisation says the correlation between weather-related crises and rising hunger in these countries, and others, is “stark and undeniable”. The brief “Hunger in a heating world”, published on September 16th, found that “the climate crisis is increasingly becoming a threat multiplier that conspires with other major drivers of hunger, such as conflict, economic shocks, displacement, poverty and widening inequalities”. Climate change is adding pressure on food production systems, undermining food security and increasing security risks. “Climate change is no longer a ticking bomb, it is exploding before our eyes,” warned Gabriela Bucher, Executive Director at Oxfam International. “It is making extreme weather such as droughts, cyclones, and floods – which have increased five-fold over the past 50 years – more frequent and more deadly.”

Oxfam looked at the top ten countries with the most recurring UN humanitarian appeals in response to major extreme weather events since 2000, where climate was classified as a “major contributor” to these appeals: Somalia, Haiti, Djibouti, Kenya, Niger, Afghanistan, Guatemala, Madagascar, Burkina Faso, and Zimbabwe. For Somalia and Haiti, for example, Oxfam counted 16 and 12 UN appeals respectively in the last two decades. The calculations of those facing acute hunger and starvation are based on the “Global Report on Food Crises” (GRFC), a UN report published annually since 2016 by the Food Security Information Network. The GRFC uses the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) in which the scale of food insecurity is broken down into five phases (minimal, stressed, crisis, emergency and catastrophe/famine). Today, 47.5 million people across the ten countries examined suffer acute hunger (IPC phase 3+), up from 21.3 million in 2016. This is a rise of 123 percent. Nearly 18 million people in these 10 countries are currently on the brink of starvation (based on the total number of people at IPC 4 level of food insecurity and above in 2021). “For millions of people already pummelled down by ongoing conflict, widening inequalities and economic crises, repeated climate shocks are becoming a backbreaker. The onslaught of climate disasters is now outpacing poor people’s ability to cope, pushing them deeper into severe hunger,” warned Bucher.

Among the ten countries, Burkina Faso has seen the highest increase in hunger with a staggering 1350% rise since 2016. As of June 2022, more than 3.4 million people in this country were suffering from extreme hunger due to armed conflict and worsening desertification of crop and pastoral lands. In the agricultural year 2021/22, cereal production in Burkina Faso decreased by 10% compared to the previous year. Global warming above 2°C could potentially reduce yields of cereals like millet and sorghum in places like Burkina Faso and Niger by 15–25%. In Niger, 2.6 million people are facing acute hunger today (up 767% from 2016). Cereal production has crashed by nearly 40%, as frequent climatic shocks on top of ongoing conflict have made harvesting increasingly difficult. Latin America has also been witnessing rising hunger despite having a significant number of middle-income countries. Hunger in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua has increased almost fourfold over the past two years – from 2.2 million people in 2018 to close to 8 million people in 2021 – a result of years of extreme climate events on top of the economic crisis caused by COVID-19. Guatemala is also in the top ten list with 6 UN appeals with weather extremes as a major factor. The country saw a 147% rise in acute hunger (IPC3+) between 2016 and 2021. A severe drought has recently contributed to the loss of close to 80 percent of the maize harvest and devastated coffee plantations. “We spent almost eight days with hardly any food,” Mariana López, a mother living in Naranjo in Guatemala’s Dry Corridor, is quoted by Oxfam. Persistent drought forced her to sell her land.

Climate-fuelled hunger is a stark demonstration of global inequality, explains Oxfam. Countries that are least responsible for the climate crisis are suffering most from its impact and are also the least resourced to cope with it. According to the brief, the sum of cumulative carbon emissions of the 10 climate hotspots for 2020 was 0.002 trillion tons of carbon – that is 0.13% of the world emissions. The carbon emissions of the G20 countries – which together hold over 80% of the world’s economy – are 650 times higher than the emissions of these ten. The charity denounces that leaders of these rich nations continue to support mega-rich polluting companies that are often big supporters of their political campaigns. “Fossil fuel companies’ daily profits have averaged $2.8 billion over the last 50 years. Less than 18 days of those profits would fund the entire UN humanitarian appeal for 2022 of $49 billion," says Oxfam. But the research revealed that despite their spiralling hunger levels, funding for the 10 worst climate hotspots in the world has been equally inadequate. Between 2000 and 2021, donors provided less than $20 billion of the $31.6 billion UN appeals linked to extreme weather in the 10 climate hotspots – that is a shortfall of nearly 40 percent.

At the UN General Assembly and ahead of COP27, Oxfam called on political leaders to take urgent action to provide lifesaving aid to address the immediate hunger crisis in these climate hotspots and to guarantee adequate climate and anticipatory financing to help impacted people adapt, prepare for and cope with the next disaster. “Leaders, especially of rich polluting countries, must live up to their promises to cut emissions. They must pay for adaptation measures and loss and damage in low-income countries, as well as immediately inject lifesaving funds to meet the UN appeal to respond to the most impacted countries,” said Bucher. Cancelling debt could also help governments free up resources to invest in climate mitigation: “Rich and most polluting nations have a moral responsibility to compensate low-income countries most impacted by the climate crisis. This is an ethical obligation, not charity,” said Bucher. The report also calls on governments to provide safe and legal avenues for people forced to move due to climate change: They need to be able to access safe countries for both short term climate disasters as well as long term climate shifts which make their places of origin unliveable. Another demand mentioned in the brief is the need to build fairer, more resilient, and more sustainable food systems: “Governments and the private sector must put fairer, gender just food systems at the heart of climate response, to help small-scale food producers recover, rebuild and respond to climate crises. This includes investing in sustainable agriculture that supports local food production and preserves the planet.” (ab)

09.09.2022 |

Transform the economy to avoid social collapse and climate breakdown

We are standing on a cliff edge (Photo: CC0)

If current efforts are not accelerated dramatically in this decade, continued poverty and inequality and rising climate change will cause social collapse in vulnerable regions, according to a landmark analysis by an international team of scientists and economists. Humanity’s future on Earth will be vastly more peaceful, more prosperous and more secure if societies do everything in their power to transform economic systems this decade than if they do not, is one of the key messages of the book published by Earth4All, a platform of experts convened by The Club of Rome, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Norwegian Business School. “We are standing on a cliff edge,” said Jorgen Randers, one of the authors of “Earth for All: A Survival Guide for Humanity”, who also co-authored the Club of Rome’s groundbreaking report “The Limits to Growth” five decades ago. “In the next 50 years, the current economic system will drive up social tensions and drive down wellbeing. We can already see how inequality is destabilising people and the planet,” he warns. “Unless there is truly extraordinary action to redistribute wealth, things will get significantly worse.” He argues that societies are creating vicious cycles where rising social tensions, exacerbated by climate breakdown, will continue to lead to a decline in trust. “This risks an explosive combination of extreme political destabilisation and economic stagnation at a time when we must do everything we can to avoid climate catastrophes.” But the good news is that the world can still keep global temperatures below 2°C and approach an end to poverty by 2050 by enacting five ‘extraordinary turnarounds’ that break with current trends and provide a framework for a fair, just, and affordable economic transformation.

The book, which was published in German on September 6th and is to be launched in English on the 20th of September, is the result of a two-year research project that brought together scientists, economic thinkers and a team of ‘systems dynamics’ computer modelers. It explores two scenarios beginning in 1980 and ending in 2100. These scenarios which are dubbed “Too Little, Too Late” and “The Giant Leap” explore how population, economies, resource use, pollution, wellbeing and social tensions might change this century depending on decisions taken this decade. The first scenario looks at what will happen if we continue on our current destructive path. It assumes that the world will continue with the economic policies from the last 40 years. GDP will continue to grow, the rich get richer while the poor fall farther behind, creating extreme inequalities and growing social tensions within and between countries. “In this scenario, the model indicates that regional societal collapse, driven by rising social tensions, food insecurity and environmental degradation, is more likely than today. Regional and global crises are often not caused by a single event like one crop failure, but cascading failures made worse by climate change, chronically dysfunctional governments and system failures,” said Per Espen Stoknes, co-author and director of the Centre for Sustainability at Norwegian Business School. In this scenario, global temperatures will soar to about 2.5°C by 2100, significantly exceeding the target of the Paris Agreement. The poorest economies will face the most extreme conditions and will have difficulties adapting to climate impacts. Later in the century, around two billion people will be living in areas that are close to the limits of human habitability. All societies will be reeling from rolling shocks of extreme heat, drought, crop failure and floods.

The second scenario is far more optimistic and argues that we can also achieve the fastest economic transformation in history. If me make ‘The Giant Leap', it will be possible to keep temperatures below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, stabilise the population well below nine billion people, reduce material use and approach an end to extreme poverty globally by 2050 – a generation earlier than in the pessimistic scenario. Social tension will decrease and wellbeing rise throughout the century because of greater income equality. In order to achieve this, societies would need to adopt immediate action across five interconnected turnarounds: Empowerment, inequality, poverty, food and energy. “Out of hundreds of potential solutions, we have found five interconnected turnarounds that represent the simplest and most effective solutions that we must start implementing this decade to build economies operating within planetary boundaries by around 2050,” said Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. First, women need to be empowered to achieve full gender equity by 2050. Second, gross inequality needs to be addressed by ensuring that the wealthiest 10% take no more than 40% of national incomes. “The wealthiest 10% currently have 50% of global incomes,” explains Owen Gaffney, author and global sustainability analyst at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. “Effective progressive taxation, including wealth taxes, can easily provide the funds needed for The Giant Leap. These solutions will also help redistribute wealth which will go a long way towards reducing polarization and building the trust and legitimacy governments need to take giant leaps.” Third, poverty needs to be ended through reform of the international financial system, lifting 3-4 billion people out of poverty. “Our economic and financial systems are broken, and we are reaching dangerous levels of inequality,” said Sandrine Dixson-Declève, author and co-president of The Club of Rome. “Do we want to create the first trillionaire or do we want to create functional, fair democratic societies?” Fourth, a transformation of the food system is needed to provide healthy diets for people and the planet and fifth, we need to transition to clean energy to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

The authors underline that economic transformation is affordable. They write in their key messages that the investment needed to build a more resilient civilization is likely to be small: in the order of 2-4% of global income per year for sustainable energy security and food security. “That’s less than our current annual subsidies to fossil fuel industries. This is easily affordable, and it will create millions of jobs,” says Sandrine Dixson-Declève. She explains that “The Giant Leap” does not mean an end to economic growth. However, it is the end of “directionless economic growth that is destroying societies and the planet”. The authors call for the creation of a novel financial innovation, the Citizen’s Fund, to tackle inequality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and provide a safety net for the most vulnerable through economic shocks. The fund would distribute the wealth of the global commons to all people as a Universal Basic Dividend. “What is missing is coalitions of politicians willing to make it happen,” said Dixson-Declève. This is echoed by Per Espen Stoknes who said: “We have known shocks were coming our way since 1972, and yet the response has been denial.” He highlights that it is now time to hold governments accountable for the future and push for strong governance models flexible enough to deal with today’s complex challenges. (ab)

12.08.2022 |

Veggie products have only up to a tenth the environmental impact of meat, study

Vegetables have a low impact (Photo: A. Beck)

Eating plant-based foods is better for the environment than going for meat and dairy products and more nutritious products are frequently more environmentally sustainable, new research reveals. According to a British study, led by researchers at the universities of Oxford and Aberdeen, many meat alternatives such as plant-based sausages or burgers had a fifth to less than a tenth of the environmental impact of meat-based counterparts. The study, which was published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on August 8th, assessed the environmental impact of more than 57,000 products sold in supermarkets, including many processed foods with multiple ingredients. In addition, the scientists linked this environmental footprint to the nutritional value of foods. They found that products that were more sustainable tended to be more nutritious, including meat alternatives. There were of course also exceptions to this trend such as sugary beverages, which had a low environmental impact but also scored poorly for nutritional quality. “By estimating the environmental impact of food and drink products in a standardised way we have taken a significant first step towards providing information that could enable informed decision-making,” said lead author Dr Michael Clark from the University of Oxford.

The researchers used publicly available information to calculate a standardised score for the environmental impact of the most common food and drink products sold in UK supermarkets, focusing on multi-ingredient products. “While previous analyses compared the impacts of food commodities such as fruits, wheat, and beef, most food products contain numerous ingredients. However, because the amount of each ingredient in a product is often known only by the manufacturer, it has been difficult to assess their environmental impacts,” the authors write in the abstract. “This work is very exciting – for the first time we have a transparent and comparable method for assessing the environmental footprint of multi-ingredient processed foods. These types of foods make up most of the supermarket shopping that we do, but until now there was no way of directly comparing their impact on the environment,” said Pete Scarborough, Professor of Population Health at the University of Oxford. The scientists identified individual ingredients of a product and known percent composition by analysing back-of-package ingredient lists which provide all ingredients in order of size. The information on each individual ingredient was then paired with environmental and nutrition databases. The analysis makes use of foodDB, a Big Data research platform that collects and processes data daily on all food and drink products available in 12 online supermarkets in the UK and Ireland, and a comprehensive review of 570 studies of the environmental impact of food production, which includes data from 38,000 farms in 119 countries. The percentages of all ingredients within each product were then used to estimate the impact and nutritional quality of each whole product. The environmental impact was estimated for four indicators: greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water stress, and eutrophication potential (when bodies of water become enriched with nutrients, often causing harmful algal blooms and ultimately killing other life). These four scores were combined into a single estimated composite environmental impact score per 100g of product.

The study found that those products made of fruits, vegetables, sugar, and flour, such as soups, salads, bread and many breakfast cereals, have low impact scores. Many of the products with the lowest impact were composed mainly of water, such as sugary drinks. Products with an intermediate environmental impact were many desserts and pastries. Those products made of meat, fish and cheese were at the high end of the scale. Jerky, biltong, and other dried beef products, which typically have more than 100g of fresh meat per 100g of final product, had the highest environmental impact. When looking at specific types of food products, such as meat and their alternatives, lasagne, cookies and biscuits, and pesto sauces, the researchers found large variation within these types of foods. For these food types, lower-impact products often had one half to one tenth the environmental impact of higher-impact products. For sausages, for example, there was a clear difference in the impacts based on the most prevalent meat in the product. With regard to the environment, sausages primarily containing beef or lamb had on average a 240% higher impact than pork sausages, which had a 100% higher impact than chicken and turkey sausages, which in turn had a 170% higher impact than vegan and vegetarian sausages. A limitation of the analysis is that information on ingredient sourcing, such as the country of origin or agricultural production method is lacking from ingredient lists, which would help to increase the accuracy of the environmental impact estimates. For example, Brazilian beef has a very different environmental footprint than British beef from grass-fed animals.

The authors write that “assessing and communicating the environmental impacts of food products will be integral to achieving the food system transformations that are urgently needed to prevent rapid environmental degradation. (…) The algorithm developed here could help enable this transformation by providing a framework that derives first estimates of the environmental impacts of food products in countries with ingredient list regulations that are similar to those in the United Kingdom.” The researchers conclude that replacing meat, dairy, and eggs with plant-based alternatives could have large environmental and health benefits in places where consumption of these foods is high. They point out that there are multiple ways to achieve this dietary change, including direct and large substitutions (e.g., beans instead of beef) or smaller transitions between like-for-like products. They admit that in some cases, large substitutions may be difficult because of taste preferences, cultural norms, or lack of access to appropriate alternatives while “smaller transitions could be more palatable” instead. “This work could support tools that help consumers make more environmentally sustainable food purchasing decisions. More importantly, it could prompt retailers and food manufacturers to reduce the environmental impact of the food supply thereby making it easier for all of us to have healthier, more sustainable diets,” said Professor Scarborough. According the authors, understanding and communicating the environmental impacts of food products is key to enabling transitions to environmentally sustainable food systems. “We still need to find how to most effectively communicate this information in order to shift behaviour towards more sustainable outcomes, but assessing the impact of products is an important step forward,” added Dr Michael Clark. (ab)

09.08.2022 |

Indigenous women are guardians of traditional knowledge, UN experts

Quechua woman in Peru (Photo: A. Beck)

Indigenous women are the backbone of indigenous peoples’ communities and play a crucial role in the preservation and transmission of traditional ancestral knowledge related to food and agriculture as well as in the protection of biodiversity and natural resources. This was one of the messages a group of UN experts conveyed on August 9 on the occasion of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. The experts, among them Mr. Francisco Cali Tzay, who is Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, urged States to take affirmative action to guarantee indigenous peoples’ full public and political participation. This year’s theme of the day was “The Role of Indigenous Women in the Preservation and Transmission of Traditional Knowledge”. Therefore, the experts put a great emphasis on the crucial role that indigenous women play in their communities as breadwinners, caretakers, knowledge keepers, leaders and human rights defenders. “Indigenous women are active change agents in society and champions of sustainability. Indigenous women are custodians of a collective accumulation of scientific knowledge and technical skills related to food and agriculture, health and medicine, natural resource management, climate change, language, arts, crafts and spiritual practices. This scientific knowledge has a key role to play in safeguarding ecosystems and ensuring environmental justice and equity,” they wrote in a joint statement, adding that indigenous women’s in-depth understanding of botany and animal species is also a powerful tool to mitigate against the catastrophic impacts of climate change.

The experts pointed to the fact that the development, application, preservation and transmission of indigenous women’s knowledge is inextricably linked to the way they use their territory, lands and resources. However, indigenous women often suffer from intersecting levels of discrimination on the basis of gender, class, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. This multiple forms of discrimination, as well as violence against women, create barriers to their development and use of their scientific knowledge. Indigenous women’s rights to self-determination, self-governance and control of resources and ancestral lands have been violated over centuries. Because of their relationship with the land and natural environment, women are disproportionally affected by the loss of lands, territories and resources due to climate change, conflicts, development and the creation of protected areas. Extractive industries on their lands are increasingly depriving them of their access to and ownership of lands. When the natural resources they steward are exploited without their free, prior and informed consent, which happens quite frequently, the knowledge of indigenous women is devalued and their ability to maintain and transmit their scientific and technical knowledge is threatened.

“Historically, indigenous women have been leaders in their communities. The preservation of indigenous peoples’ communities, values and ways of life depend on indigenous women and girls regaining their roles as leaders within their communities,” the statement reads. In order to enable women to do so, States should ensure effective legal protection of indigenous women’s rights to lands, territory and resources and promote the meaningful participation of indigenous women in the management and regulation of their lands and resources. According to the experts, this must include the participation of women in consultation processes on administrative and legislative issues as well projects that may impact indigenous lands, territory and resources, with the aim of obtaining their free, prior and informed consent. “States should take affirmative measures to guarantee equal and full public and political participation of indigenous women, including by establishing and strengthening institutions for indigenous women in leadership roles,” the experts conclude. (ab)

29.07.2022 |

Overshoot: Humanity has exhausted natural resources for 2022

We are living on this planet as if we had another one (Photo: CC0)

July 28 marked Earth Overshoot Day this year – the day humanity has used up all the resources nature can sustainably supply and renew in a year, according to data from international sustainability organization “Global Footprint Network”. For the remaining 156 days of the year, we will be living on resources borrowed from future generations. The date is determined each year by the network, using National Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts data. This is achieved by contrasting the world’s demand on nature (ecological footprint), including demand for food, timber, fibres (cotton) and space for urban infrastructure with the planet’s ability to replenish resources and absorb waste, including carbon dioxide emissions. Global overshoot began in the early 1970s and since then, the date has been creeping up the calendar. The first overshoot day was on December 25, 1971. In the early 90s, it was already reached in mid-October and in 2018, the day fell in July for the first time. After a postponement to August in 2020 due to corona-related lockdowns, we are now living on borrowed time again at the end of July.

The 50-year persistence of overshoot means that the annual deficits have cumulated in an ecological debt of 19 years worth of planetary regeneration, says the Global Footprint Network. This means that it would take 19 years of our planet’s entire regeneration to reverse the damage from overuse of natural resources, assuming it was fully reversible. The result is widespread degradation of ecosystems, a huge decline in biodiversity, excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and increased competition for food and energy. These symptoms are becoming more prominent with unusual heat waves, forest fires, droughts, and floods. “Earth Overshoot Day demonstrates that the current system of production and consumption is not compatible with the intention to continue to inhabit this planet,” said Ecuador’s Minister of Environment, Water and Ecological Transition, Gustavo Manrique. “To better protect our natural resources and manage our demand for them, it is necessary to take concrete joint actions aimed at a new development model based on sustainability and regeneration,” he added.

The network’s research also shows the link between resources and food security. By now more than 3 billion people or 38% of the global population live in countries which produce less food than they consume and generate less income than the world average. This means they have inadequate food capacity and a huge disadvantage in accessing food on global markets compared to countries with high relative income. For example, Nepal only produces 78% of the amount of food that it consumes. This risk is amplified by the country’s financial disadvantage: its income per person is merely 9% of the world average. Other countries with the double risk exposure include Rwanda, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Mexico, Iraq, and Iran. Countries with low income and lacking in food biocapacity are therefore particularly exposed to food insecurity. If we include all resources, not just food, the number of people exposed to this double challenge climbs to an astonishing 5.8 billion people or 72% of the world population.

However, the Global Footprint Network also points out that a reversal of the trend is possible and, above all, will also bring economic benefits for the pioneers. “Resource security is turning into an essential parameter of economic strength. There is no advantage in waiting for others to act first. Rather, it is in the interest of every city, company, or country to protect its own ability to operate in the inevitable future of more climate change and resource constraints,” said Mathis Wackernagel, founder of Global Footprint Network. He assumes that these ventures are also more likely to grow in value than assets which contribute to overshoot. Turning the trends around is possible, confirms the network. To renew everything humanity currently demands from nature would take the biocapacity of 1.75 Earths. If humanity delays Earth Overshoot Day by 6 days every year, humanity will be below one planet before 2050. To limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels we would need to move the date 10 days every year. There are many options to achieve this. Cutting food waste by half worldwide, as practiced in many community initiatives around the world, would move the date of Earth Overshoot Day by 13 days. Upgrading urban bicycle infrastructure worldwide, to a level we currently find in the Netherlands, has the potential save 9 days. “The power of possibility gives us examples of how to build the future we need,” concluded Wackernagel. (ab)

07.07.2022 |

Up to 828 million people worldwide are facing hunger, UN report

Healthy diets are not affordable for 3.1 billion people around the world (Photo: CC0)

The world is moving backwards in its efforts to end hunger and malnutrition. According to a new report released on Wednesday by five UN agencies, the number of people affected by hunger globally rose to as many as 828 million in 2021. This is about 180 million more people since the beginning of the 2030 Agenda, with much of the increase (150 million) since the outbreak of COVID-19. This means that a tenth of the global population were chronically undernourished last year. Furthermore, almost 3.1 billion people could not afford a healthy diet in 2020, up 112 million from 2019, reflecting the effects of inflation in consumer food prices. “The challenges to ending hunger, food insecurity and all forms of malnutrition keep growing. The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the fragilities in our agrifood systems and the inequalities in our societies, driving further increases in world hunger and severe food insecurity,” the heads of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), UNICEF, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organisation write in their joint foreword to the report.

The 2022 edition of ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World’ gives a range of between 702 and 828 million people who were affected by hunger in 2021 to reflect the uncertainty in data collection due to the COVID-19 pandemic and related restrictions. According to the authors, information on actual food availability and consumption in 2020 and 2021 remains scarce and imprecise. If the middle of the projected range (768 million) is considered, the number of undernourished people increased by 46 million since 2020. “There is a real danger these numbers will climb even higher in the months ahead. The global price spikes in food, fuel and fertilizers that we are seeing as a result of the crisis in Ukraine threaten to push countries around the world into famine,” warned WFP Executive Director David Beasley. “The result will be global destabilization, starvation, and mass migration on an unprecedented scale. We have to act today to avert this looming catastrophe.” More than half (56.2%) of the 828 million people who were undernourished in 2021 lived in Asia (465.4 million people), followed by Africa with 289.1 million (34.9%) and Latin America and the Caribbean with 64 million (7.7%).

After remaining relatively unchanged since 2015, the proportion of people affected by hunger (called the prevalence of undernourishment) jumped in 2020 and continued to rise in 2021, to 9.8 percent of the world population. If the upper bound of 828 million people is considered, the figure is at 10.5 %. The numbers show persistent regional disparities, with Africa bearing the heaviest burden with respect to the prevalence of undernourishment. In Africa, 21% of the population were undernourished in 2021, compared to 20.3% in 2020. The situation is especially alarming in Middle Africa, where a third of the population (33.3%) were undernourished last year. This subregion includes countries such as Chad and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In Eastern Africa, 30.8% of the population faced hunger. In Asia, 9.9% of the population were affected while the share was 9.7% in Latin America.

The report not only provides estimates on the number of chronically undernourished people but also on moderate and severe food insecurity. Moderate food insecurity is defined as “a level of severity of food insecurity at which people face uncertainties about their ability to obtain food” which means that people are forced to compromise on the nutritional quality and/or quantity of food consumed at times during the year due to the lack of money or other resources. Overall, nearly one in three people in the world (2.3 billion) did not have year-round access to adequate food in 2021 – an increase of almost 350 million people compared to 2019, the year before the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded. Of those people affected by moderate or severe food insecurity, close to 40% or 923.7 million people were facing food insecurity at severe levels, which means they had run out of food and, at worst, gone a day without eating. Since 2019, these numbers increased by 207 million people. Healthy diets are also now further out of reach for people in every region in the world. In 2020, almost 3.1 billion people could not afford a healthy diet, up 112 million from 2019. This number could even be greater once data are available to account for income losses in 2020.

The report also paints a grim picture of the nutritional situation of the world’s children. An estimated 45 million children under the age of five were suffering from wasting, the deadliest form of malnutrition, which increases children’s risk of death by up to 12 times. In addition, 149 million children under the age of five had stunted growth and development which means they are too short for their age due to a chronic lack of essential nutrients in their diets. Another 39 million children were overweight. “The unprecedented scale of the malnutrition crisis demands an unprecedented response. We must double our efforts to ensure that the most vulnerable children have access to nutritious, safe, and affordable diets – and services for the early prevention, detection and treatment of malnutrition,” said Catherine Russell, Executive Director of UNICEF. “With so many children’s lives and futures at stake, this is the time to step up our ambition for child nutrition – and we have no time to waste.”

The outlook for the future is also quite somber. The ongoing war in Ukraine, involving two of the biggest global producers of staple cereals, oilseeds and fertilizer, is disrupting international supply chains and pushing up the prices of grain, fertilizer and energy. Supply chains were already being adversely affected by increasingly frequent extreme climate events, especially in low-income countries. This has all potentially sobering implications for global food security and nutrition, the report warns. The world is constantly moving further away from its goal of ending hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition in all its forms by 2030. Current projections are that nearly 670 million people (8% of the world population) will still be facing hunger in 2030 – even if a global economic recovery takes place. This is a similar number to 2015, when the goal of ending hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition by the end of this decade was launched under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. “These are depressing figures for humanity. We continue to move away from our goal of ending hunger by 2030,” said IFAD President Gilbert F. Houngbo. “The ripple effects of the global food crisis will most likely worsen the outcome again next year. We need a more intense approach to end hunger.” (ab)

29.06.2022 |

Rising wheat prices will put millions at risk of hunger, OECD/FAO

Consumers in many countries depend on cereal from Ukraine and Russia (Photo: CC0)

The war in Ukraine is threatening global food security at a time of already elevated global commodity prices and could lead to an increase in the number of undernourished by close to 19 million people in 2023, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The goal of eliminating hunger by 2030 is thus unlikely to be achieved. A new report, released by the two organisations on Wednesday, warns that prices of agricultural products have been driven upward by a combination of factors, including the recovery in demand following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting supply and trade disruptions, poor weather in main supplying nations, and rising production and transportation costs. This trend has been further exacerbated recently by the impact of the war on agricultural exports from Ukraine and Russia, two main suppliers of cereals. “Without peace in Ukraine, food security challenges facing the world will continue to worsen, especially for the world’s poorest,” OECD Secretary-General Mathias Cormann said. “An immediate end of the war would be the best outcome for people in both Russia and Ukraine and for the many households around the world that are suffering from sharp price increases driven by the war.”

The “OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook” is published by the two organisations each year and presents production, consumption, trade and price trends for the main farm and fisheries products at regional, national and global levels for the coming decade, such as cereals, oilseeds and oilseed products, meat and biofuels. This year’s edition for the period 2022 to 2031, however, is characterised by the uncertainties caused by the war and its economic implications on the world economy. The report includes a chapter with a short-term assessment of how the war may affect both global agricultural markets and food security because the medium-term impacts cannot be assessed based on the data currently available. The authors summarize what almost everyone has learned from newspaper reports since the outbreak of the war: Ukraine and Russia are among the most important producers and exporters of arable crops in the world, particularly of wheat, barley, maize, sunflower seed and rapeseed. “Based on the average of the last five seasons, Russia and Ukraine accounted for 10% and 3% of global wheat production, respectively. Russia and Ukraine are the first and fifth largest wheat exporters, accounting for 20% and 10% of global exports, respectively,” confirms the report. Both countries played in important role in supplying wheat to global markets, including to the Near East and North Africa region, where wheat is the main staple food. Russia and Ukraine also account for 20% of global barley production, and are the third and fourth largest exporters, respectively. In addition, Ukraine is the world’s largest producer of sunflower seed, followed by Russia. Together, they produce more than 50% of the global output. Moreover, many farmers rely on Russia for fertiliser exports. The World Food Programme (WFP) sourced the majority of the wheat and a large share of other commodities distributed from Ukraine.

The Outlook looks at the global food security impacts of the war by conducting several scenarios with a model that assumes different impacts on the harvest and export levels of all crops in Ukraine, and on the export levels of wheat in Russia for the next marketing season (2022/23). The authors project the impact of these scenarios on international wheat prices. If Ukraine fully loses its capacity to export, this could lead to a 19% increase in the global wheat price. If Ukraine’s export capacity is reduced by 50% and Russia’s exports are 50% of the normal amount, wheat prices would increase by 21%. In the most extreme scenario where Russian exports are reduced by 50% and Ukraine experiences a total loss of its export capacity, wheat prices would be 34% higher than without the war. High food prices are putting millions more people at risk of undernourishment. In a separate analysis, based on the development of international prices, the FAO projected undernourishment to increase by about 1% globally in 2022/23, which means an increase of between 8 and 13 million people in total numbers, depending on the assumed severity of the export reduction. “A scenario simulating a severe export shortfall from Ukraine and Russia in 2022/23 and 2023/24, and assuming no global production response, suggests an increase in the number of undernourished by close to 19 million people in 2023/24. This adds to the recent increase in global undernourishment following the COVID-19 pandemic,” highlights the report. “These rising prices of food, fertilizer, feed and fuel, as well as tightening financial conditions are spreading human suffering across the world,” said FAO Director-General QU Dongyu.

The report also reminds that the global community should not lose sight of the need to work towards achieving the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The authors focus on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 2 (SDG-2) on Zero Hunger as well as the aim to limit global warming to below 2 degrees by 2050 as agreed in the 2015 Paris Agreement and the role agriculture can and must play here. The Outlook projects that, without additional efforts, SDG2 will not be achieved by 2030. Global food consumption is projected to increase by 1.4% p.a. over the next decade, mainly driven by population growth. The projected evolution of diets continues to be largely determined by income levels in the coming decade. In high-income countries, heightened concerns about health and the environment are expected to result in a decline in per capita consumption of sugar and only little growth in the consumption of animal protein. In contrast, consumers in middle-income countries are expected to increase their food consumption and the diversity of their diets, with growing shares of animal products and fats over the next ten years. Diets in low-income countries, however, will remain largely based on staples, and the projections suggest that food consumption will not increase sufficiently to meet SDG 2 on Zero Hunger by 2030. Agricultural emissions will continue to increase. Direct greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from agriculture are projected to increase by 6% during the next decade, with livestock accounting for 90% of this increase. Agricultural emissions are, nonetheless, projected to grow at a lower rate than production, thanks to yield improvements and a reduction in the share of ruminant production. (ab)

16.05.2022 |

Reform food systems to prevent future food price crises, report says

We need to avoid the next ‘perfect storm’ (Photo: CC0)

Failure to reform food systems has allowed the Ukraine conflict to “become a full-blown global food price crisis and a major threat to the food security of millions of people”, leading food experts have warned. According to the special report ‘Another Perfect Storm?’, published by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) on May 6th, the current food price crisis could have been avoided but fundamental flaws in global food systems, such as heavy reliance on food imports and excessive commodity speculation, meant that the invasion of Ukraine sparked a third global food price crisis in 15 years. “A new generation is once again facing mounting food insecurity, and it seems no lessons have been learned since the last food price crisis,” said Olivier De Schutter, co-chair of IPES-Food and UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights. “Continuing to rely on a handful of food commodities and countries for global food supplies, combined with predatory financiers betting on food, is a recipe for disaster,” he added.

World food prices continued to see record-breaking highs in April 2022, hitting food insecure countries and populations hard. FAO modelling suggests that in a ‘severe shock’ scenario, which is increasingly likely, the global number of undernourished people will increase by 13.1 million this year. But the FAO food price index had already hit levels as high as 2008 peaks back in January 2022. “In this context, it was inevitable that a supply shock affecting two of the world’s major grain exporting countries would destabilize global markets on some level,” the authors write. For example, 26 countries source over 50% of wheat imports from Ukraine and Russia. In the case of Eritrea, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the figure is 80-100%. However, the food experts doubt that the current food price and food security crises would have been an inevitable impact of this conflict. IPES-Food argues that “a number of underlying rigidities, weaknesses, and flaws in global food systems are amplifying the effects of the Ukraine conflict on food security”. “The world’s food security is built on a house of cards – the whole edifice can tumble when one card falls,” writes Jennifer Clapp, vice chair of IPES-Food and one of the lead authors of the report, in an op-ed for Civil Eats. “The concentrated nature of the global food system creates vulnerabilities, which can have cascading consequences when there are disruptions to any part of it. These economies of scale might be designed for profitable efficiency, when things operate according to plan. But they’re neither stable, resilient, nor dependable in the face of risks, especially for vulnerable people.”

The authors analyse four structural weaknesses that are leaving food systems vulnerable to price shocks. The first problem are food import dependencies of many countries. Global dietary diversity has been declining for decades. Already by 1995, wheat, rice and maize – just 3 of the 7,000 plants consumed by humans – accounted for more than 50% of the world’s plant-derived food energy intake. “In many countries, cash crops have taken the place of more diverse food cropping and nutritionally important foodstuffs,” the report found. “For example, tobacco farming is considered to have displaced vegetables and pulses in Bangladesh, as well as cassava, millet, and sweet potatoes in a number of African countries.” While most countries continue to produce staple crops for domestic consumption, many do not produce enough of them to meet their needs, and have become reliant on large volumes of imports,” according to the authors. Some countries are now 100% dependent on imports of staple foods while being highly indebted. Food importing countries have also become dependent on a limited number of grain exporters. Just seven countries plus the EU account for 90% of the world’s wheat exports, and just four countries account for over 80% of the world’s maize exports. Global trade in staple crops is dominated by a handful of countries and corporations. For example, 70-90% of all grain trade is controlled by four companies: Archer-Daniels Midland, Bunge, Cargill, Dreyfus. This is leading to significant disruptions when a major exporter goes offline, says the report.

Secondly, the report finds that a number of entrenched obstacles hold back farmers’ ability to shift and diversify their production in response to global market instability and food security needs. These include geographical over-specialisation, trader and governmental preferences for commodity crops and biofuels, and reliance on synthetic fertilizers. For example, regions such as the US ‘corn belt’ or the Argentine ‘soybelt’ have become highly specialized in the production of specific commodity crops. Accumulated investments in these crops create ‘path dependencies’, the authors explain. Commodity-specific skills, training, equipment, networks, and retail relationships are costly to obtain, and might no longer be relevant if farmers shifted to different crops or different modes of production. Thirdly, market failure and speculation are additional problems. According to IPES-Food, evidence suggests financial speculators are likely contributing to exacerbating food price rises and volatility. “In just 9 days in March 2022, the price of wheat on futures markets jumped 54%. This is despite global wheat stocks being high relative to historical trends – global wheat and maize supplies have steadily increased since 2012. Stock-to-use ratios in 2022 for cereals are reasonable at 29.7% in 2022, just marginally below the 2020/21 level, indicating a relatively comfortable supply level.” The authors point out that since the Ukraine invasion began, there has been increased investment in commodity futures and commodity linked funds. Daily trades of one such fund increased up to 100-fold from January to early March. Trade volumes on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange rose, and the share of speculators in the wheat and maize markets increased.

The fourth structural weakness analysed in the report is the vicious cycle of conflict, climate change, poverty and food insecurity that is leaving hundreds of millions of people without the ability to adapt to sudden shocks. The current crisis has shown that hundreds of millions of people lack the income or resources to cope with rising food prices or climate-related shocks. “More than 50% of farmers and rural workers live below the poverty line in several countries in the Global South with the largest rural populations. The poorest populations in low income countries spend over 60% of their income on food, and as such, even small price rises can have devastating impacts – vulnerabilities that were cruelly exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic,” reads the report.

The expert panel warns against short-sighted responses to the crisis that exacerbate current trends, such as suspending environmental regulations, ramping up industrial food production or further promoting export-oriented fertilizer-dependent agriculture. Instead, IPES-Food calls for urgent action to support food importing countries, including through debt relief. The report highlights that actions that enhance the ability of countries to build and sustain social protection systems will provide the greatest and most lasting benefits, as acknowledged by governments in the wake of the 2007-2008 food price crisis. The establishment of a new financing mechanism, in the form of a Global Fund for Social Protection, would enable poorer countries to provide social protection schemes, the authors stress. Ultimately, debt relief/cancellation is essential in order for net food importing low-income countries to be able to pay spiraling import bills, and to put social protection systems in place. “For decades, rich governments and institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have pushed low-income countries to grow crops for export to the rich world and to import staples like wheat and corn to feed themselves,” said Raj Patel, IPES-Food expert and Professor in the Lyndon B Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. “Now millions of people are left exposed to recurrent food price shocks, countries are in debt, and interest rates are rising. Cancelling debt for food import-dependent countries is essential to help them prevent domestic unrest, protect vulnerable populations, and to rebuild and diversify food production,” he urged.

Another recommendation is to curb excessive commodity speculation and enhance market transparency. “Evidence suggests financial speculators are jumping into commodity investments and gambling on rising food prices, and this is pushing the world’s poorest people deeper into hunger,” confirms Jennifer Clapp. “Governments have failed to curb excessive speculation and ensure transparency of food stocks and commodity markets – this must be urgently addressed.” Moreover, the food experts call on governments to build up regional grain reserves and food security response systems. “It’s alarming to see rising prices and the threat of hunger and food riots return to many countries in Africa. Rebuilding regional sovereign grain reserves is a key to resilience when these sorts of shocks hit – West Africa has made some progress, but it’s a wake-up call and all regions need support to accelerate this,” said IPES-Food’s Mamadou Goïta, Mali who is executive director of Institut de Recherche et de Promotion des Alternatives en Développement Afrique (IRPAD Afrique). In addition, the authors recommend to accelerate steps to diversify food production and restructure trade flows. Steps to rebuild domestic food production over the coming months and years could help to mitigate price spikes and ensure access to staple foods. “Countries need context-specific approaches allowing them to rebuild a degree of self-sufficiency in key staple foods where resources allow, shift to more resilient traditional crops (e.g. millet instead of rice) in tandem with re-diversifying food consumption, and ensure a more diverse mix of local and global supplies,” according to the authors. Finally, IPES-Food points to the need to reduce the reliance on fertilizers and fossil energy in food production through diversity and agroecology. “Agroecology is a form of crisis response, a route to resilience, and a low-cost way to hedge against various shocks,” the authors conclude. (ab)

22.03.2022 |

World Water Day: Report shines a spotlight on potential of groundwater

Groundwater is often used for irrigation (Photo: CC0)

Groundwater is central to the fight against poverty, to food and water security, to the creation of decent jobs, to socio-economic development, and to the resilience of societies and economies to climate change. However, this natural resource is often poorly understood and consequently undervalued, mismanaged and even abused. The United Nations are trying to change this by making groundwater the theme of this year’s “World Water Day”, celebrated on March 22, and of the new edition of the “World Water Development Report” (WWDR 2021), published a day ahead by UNESCO. The report, entitled ‘Groundwater: Making the invisible visible’, describes the challenges and opportunities linked to the development, management and governance of groundwater across the world. The authors argue that the vast potential of groundwater, and the need to manage it sustainably, must no longer be overlooked. Therefore, they call on States to commit themselves to developing adequate and effective groundwater management and governance policies in order to address current and future water crises.

According to the report, groundwater accounts for 99% of all liquid freshwater on Earth. Groundwater currently provides half of the volume of water withdrawn for domestic use worldwide, including the drinking water for the vast majority of the rural population who do not get their water delivered to them via public or private supply systems. Groundwater also provides around 25% of all water withdrawn for irrigation, serving 38% of the world’s irrigated land. The authors estimate that water use will grow by roughly 1% per year over the next 30 years and dependence on groundwater is expected to rise because surface water availability becomes increasingly limited due to climate change. There are many challenges related to groundwater: “Groundwater is being over-used in many areas, where more water is abstracted from aquifers than is recharged by rain and snow. Continuous over-use leads eventually to depletion of the resource,” says the report. Pollution is also a problem in many areas and remediation is often a long and difficult process. “More and more water resources are being polluted, overexploited, and dried up by humans, sometimes with irreversible consequences,” warned UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay. “Making smarter use of the potential of still sparsely developed groundwater resources, and protecting them from pollution and overexploitation, is essential to meet the fundamental needs of an ever-increasing global population and to address the global climate and energy crises,” she added.

One chapter of the report provides an overview of the role of groundwater in agriculture, the sector with the largest use of the resource at a global level. “As population and income growth drives demand for more intensive and higher-value food production, for which groundwater is well suited, irrigated agriculture, livestock and related industrial uses, including food processing, are becoming increasingly reliant on this resource,” says the report. Approximately 70% of global groundwater withdrawals, and even more in arid and semi-arid regions, are used in the agricultural production of food, fibres, livestock and industrial crops. Regions heavily reliant on groundwater for irrigation include North America and South Asia, where 59% and 57% of the areas equipped for irrigation use groundwater, respectively. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where the opportunities offered by the vast shallow aquifers remain largely underexploited, only 3% of farmland is equipped for irrigation and only 5% of that area uses groundwater. The provision of cheap energy for pumping groundwater for irrigated agriculture is a problem epecially in water-scarce countries because it can lead to groundwater depletion and declining water quality. Another threat to groundwater quality is the use of fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture. Nitrate, from chemical and organic fertilizers, is the most prevalent anthropogenic contaminant in groundwater globally. Insecticides, herbicides and fungicides can also pollute groundwater with carcinogens and other toxic substances. The authors find that laws and regulations to prevent or limit pollution from agriculture, and especially their enforcement, are generally weak. Policies addressing water pollution in agriculture are thus urgently needed.

The report highlights that groundwater – which is distributed over the entire globe, albeit unequally – has the potential to provide societies with huge social, economic and environmental benefits, including climate change adaptation. The quality of groundwater is generally good, which means it can be used safely without requiring advanced levels of treatment. Groundwater is often the most cost-effective way of providing a secure supply of water to rural villages. With regard to climate change adaptation, the capacity of aquifer systems to store seasonal or episodic surface water surpluses can ensure that more freshwater is available over the entire year as aquifers have lower evaporative losses than surface reservoirs. “Decision-makers must begin to take full account of the vital ways in which groundwater can help ensure the resilience of human life and activities in a future where the climate is becoming increasingly unpredictable” says Gilbert F. Houngbo, Chair of UN-Water and President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). “Improving the way we use and manage groundwater is an urgent priority if we are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.”

The report also contains recommendations on what needs to be done to unlock groundwater’s full potential. First, it is necessary to collect more data on groundwater. The authors emphasizes that groundwater monitoring is often a ‘neglected area’. An entire chapter is dedicated to “Building and updating the knowledge base”. The authors mention that the private sector, particularly, the oil, gas and mining industries, already possesses a great deal of data, information and knowledge on the composition of the deeper domains underground, including aquifers. As a matter of corporate social responsibility, they should share these data and information with public sector professionals. Second, environmental regulations need to be strengthened in order to avoid groundwater pollution. According to the WWDR, preventing contamination requires suitable land use and appropriate environmental regulations, especially across aquifer recharge areas. Prevention measures listed in the report include: prohibiting or limiting certain polluting and water-using activities; limiting the use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers; restricting certain cropping patterns; reducing animal grazing intensity; reclaiming agricultural land; and managing drainage. Third, it is necessary to reinforce human, material and financial resources. In many countries, the general lack of groundwater professionals among the staff of institutions and local and national government, as well as insufficient mandates, financing and support of groundwater departments or agencies, hamper effective groundwater management. Governments should use limited financial resources more efficiently through tailored initiatives. The authors also write that in many countries, publicly funded activities in other sectors contribute to the depletion or pollution of groundwater resources, e.g. farm subsidies that encourage crops with high water demands. Reforming harmful subsidies and aligning them with groundwater policies should also be part of the water financing agenda. “Unlocking the full potential of groundwater will require strong and concerted efforts to manage and use it sustainably. And it all starts by making the invisible visible”, the authors conclude. (ab)


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