Water for Food

Climate Panel warns of food and water shortages: DWFI already tackling that challenge

April 4, 2014

drought (2)

This week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its fifth report and connected – much more clearly than in past reports — climate change with risks to global food production. More dramatic slowdowns in production are likely, the report warned, raising the specter of greater food scarcity at a time when population growth and rising incomes demand even more food.

Though it receives little attention, lack of water is a major reason crop production is suffering global challenges. Water shortages already occur in many of the world’s major food production areas; droughts, floods and other extreme events are on the rise globally; and some 700 million people already live in water-stressed areas. Those numbers will worsen in the years to come as populations and incomes increase and climate change intensifies.

California’s severe drought is making headlines, but much less discussed is the drought developing in Texas and Oklahoma, or the droughts in Brazil, northern India and China, southern Australia and many other parts of the world.

There is no easy answer to address these serious global problems, but the Water for Food Institute continues to attack the consequences of climate change on water and food.

• A key strategy for sustaining crop yields with limited water is to improve drought tolerance in crops. We support important research to develop new varieties of wheat, corn, rice and other staple crops that will do better in water-short environments. For example, University of Nebraska-Lincoln agronomists P. Stephen Baenziger and Harkamal Walia are making important strides in improving yields in times of drought in wheat, a major food crop in dry areas, by identifying novel genes from wild wheat that increase the plant’s ability to access water.

• Better irrigation and other practices can also increase water productivity of crops. Therefore, we support innovations in irrigation, including UNL computer scientist’s M. Can Vuran’s wireless underground sensor network to improve soil moisture monitoring and UNL’s Nebraska Agricultural Water Management Network. Created to help farmers better manage irrigation through soil water content monitoring, the network has significantly decreased withdrawals from the High Plains Aquifer in participating farm fields.

• Monitoring and preparing for drought are also vital components to helping communities adapt to climate change. The National Drought Mitigation Center, housed at UNL, helps people and institutions develop and implement measures to reduce their vulnerability to drought. The NDMC prepares the nationally significant U.S. Drought Monitor and other drought services, advises policymakers and provides data to the media and general public.

• Our work extends internationally through collaborations with institutions on research into drought crop tolerance, irrigation technology and drought preparedness in numerous countries, such as India, China and Ethiopia.

This week, the I.P.C.C. report gave the world another strong dose of bad news: human-caused climate change is happening and already affecting the global food supply. We made that point at the 2013 Water for Food Conference last May, which highlighted climate change and its effects on water and food security. We’re making it again this week at a symposium on drought in the Great Plains. And we’ll continue to bring water scarcity into policy and technical discussions in the future.

But the good news is that institutions like ours continue to make progress: developing new practices and technologies to improve food production with less pressure on scarce water resources, collaborating with partners near and far and educating the next generation of scientists and decision-makers on water for food issues.

Water remains at the heart of the suffering climate change threatens. And tackling that threat to water and food security is DWFI’s mission.

For more information on DWFI activities, contact Rachael Herpel at: (402) 472-4977 or rherpel@nebraska.edu

Roberto Lenton, a leading global expert in water and development, joined DWFI as its founding executive director in 2012.

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