- drought

By Ben Gill

In this second part of our ‘connecting the dots’ blog series, we explore why water shortages are something we should be preparing for.

After one of the warmest European winters on record, coming on the back of the driest summer for 300 years, the switch to the El Nino weather system is bringing more heat to the Northern Hemisphere. 

What are the potential implications of this and how do we respond?

Extreme heat, wildfires and flooding are issues that are currently grabbing headlines. Yet, the long term impact on water availability may well have more profound impacts. Addressing water restrictions will require a joined-up coherent response. 

Water shortages are already affecting food supply. In Europe, food price inflation has in part been caused by drought and heat. Governments are also having to step in, such as in Spain. The Spanish government is supporting farmers and consumers to cope with the impact of an unprecedented drought. Nearly 50% of the Euro 2.2 billion plan has been used to compensate farmers. This is for the loss of livestock and for grain which is also being grown to feed livestock. However, the plan does not address how farming and consumption needs to change in a more water-stressed world. 

What might a more joined-up approach involve?

Most forms of meat production are both carbon and water intensive. A more joined-up solution might be to encourage farmers to grow drought tolerant crops which we can eat directly as part of a more sustainable and healthier plant-based diet. In parallel, consumers could be encouraged and incentivised to shift towards a more plant-based diet. This would also have significant health benefits. In one interesting experiment, a German supermarket has been trialling pricing foods on their true carbon costs. Could this be rolled out more widely in water-stressed areas?

Water-stress also has wider economic impacts. New real estate developments in water stressed areas are at real risk of having planning permission refused due to water supply and capacity issues. Water restrictions will start to impact other industries. While processes can be made more efficient, the biggest water savings will come from a shift in our economic model to lower levels of consumption. 

This can be achieved with positive ‘co-benefits’ if we move to more durable and repairable goods. Also through communal ownership models of goods that are energy and water intensive to produce. Such tools, toy and book libraries can also help build connections within the community, in turn supporting better mental health. 

So while water shortages are likely to have an impact on food prices first, the impacts will be felt across the whole of society and the economy. When faced with such a systemic challenge, the response has to be equally joined-up. It needs to address production and consumption across all aspects of society and the economy.  Although this is challenging, if correctly developed and implemented, this can deliver a range of health, nature recovery and climate benefits also.