The role of “invisible water” in the climate and food crisis

Above: rice farmers using the power of water to grow their crops

If you asked someone to describe water, he/she would probably mention the ocean, rivers, or perhaps the transparent liquid we drink in our glasses.

Yet, the importance of water cannot be overstated: It’s so important to humans that a person could not survive three days without water. To underscore its importance, in 2002, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Human Rights officially recognized access to clean, safe water as a human right.

Today, 40% of the world’s people face water scarcity and over 90% of climate disasters are water related. Global ambitions of reaching Sustainable Development Goal #6 – ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030 – are not on track.

There could be a solution, though. It’s called “Invisible water”, or the water resources we do not normally think about, like groundwater, clouds, or soil moisture. This invisible resource, scientists say, could be used to help mitigate our current water and the related food and climate crisis too.

Below are some of the ways that “invisible water” plays a fundamental role in our lives and how it could help us to better combat water scarcity and the related climate and food crises for ourselves and future generations.

The importance of soil moisture

Soil moisture matters in agri-food systems. It matters so much that poor soil health has devastating consequences, like worldwide drought and 50 million people in Eastern Africa suffering acute food insecurity.

The UN argues that drought should be a top priority for the international community. According to a new UN report, by 2050, drought could affect more than 75% of the world’s population.

A solution is complex and involves limiting climate change, restoring land, improving water management, shifting diets, and transitioning to green energy. It is necessary to restore a favorable hydroclimate and protect the moisture and fertility of the soil through sustainable agricultural practices, such as the use of cover crops, the increase of organic matter/biomass content, and minimal tillage, to avoid destroying soil structure and the soil aggregates that hold soil moisture.

Groundwater, evaporation, and a growing understanding of its value

Groundwater is another form of invisible water that has gained more attention. In the near future, groundwater will be even more important due to climate change and the fact that the planet will soon have three billion more inhabitants, most of whom will drink groundwater and rely on it for food. Because of this, it is necessary to gain a deeper understanding of how groundwater sustains our ecosystems and food production and how it is being dangerously mismanaged. Over-extraction – when too much water is extracted from aquifers – and contamination (for example from pesticides and fertilizers) are the biggest threats to the world’s groundwater.

Using groundwater to power Cocoa tree crop irrigation in Ghana

In July 2020, MEDA harnessed the power of groundwater through its Farmers’ Economic Development Through Seedlings (FEATS) Project. Working together with The Ghana Cocoa Board (COCOBOD), it used groundwater from boreholes to fuel three automated drip irrigation systems for cocoa seed gardens, the only source of quality planting material for cocoa cultivation in Ghana. The result: the project was able to provide automated drip irrigation for 70 acres (28.3 hectares) of cocoa seed gardens.

These drip irrigation systems have proven to be essential, since Ghana’s cocoa crop is its third-largest export commodity and represents the most important source of revenue for many small-scale farmers across the country. Because of the unpredictability of rainfall events caused by climate change, the irrigation system has been proven beneficial for farmers as an adaptive tool to these challenges. With the successful use of groundwater resources to establish automated drip irrigation of cocoa seed gardens, it has opened the door for the extensive use of groundwater for irrigation in the cocoa industry. For its work, MEDA was recognized as “NGO of the Year” in the Cocoa sector in September 2020.

How MEDA is helping to build “The Great Green Wall” in Africa

The Wall is an African-led movement started in 2007 with an epic ambition to grow a 4,970-mile (8,000 km) natural wonder of the world across the entire width of Africa to combat land degradation, desertification, and drought in the Sahel region. More than a decade later and roughly 15% underway, the initiative is already bringing life back to Africa’s climate change affected landscapes at an unprecedented scale, providing food security, jobs, and a reason to stay for the millions who live in its path.

MEDA’s Nigeria WAY project in Bauchi, Northern Nigeria, has contributed to this initiative. Bauchi state is witnessing the growing impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss firsthand. Annual precipitation in the past three years has consistently been delayed by more than one month and when the rains come, the intensity of rainfall over short periods of time causes flooding and soil erosion, often taking lives and destroying properties in the process.

The WAY project has taken on a leadership role in response to the environmental challenges facing farmers in Bauchi State. This includes playing an active role in the creation of the Climate Collaboration strategy, which paved the way for the establishment of the Bauchi State Environmental Stakeholders committee in 2018.

The main focus in 2021 was to respond to the growing threat of drought and desertification. The committee, which represents a diverse group of community stakeholders, government agencies, civil society organizations, and the private sector, supported the planting of 9,500 trees in the seven Local Government Areas where MEDA works.

Next steps: making “invisible water” a visible responsibility

A stark reminder about the importance of invisible water came earlier this year, when research led by the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University showed that the planetary boundary for water has already been crossed.

The planetary boundary framework was developed in 2009 to describe Earth’s life support system which keeps our planet stable and habitable for humans, the way it has been for the past 12,000 years. The framework identifies nine Earth system processes that continue to serve us if we don’t push them beyond the scientifically established planetary boundaries. However, freshwater and five other boundaries – climate change, biosphere integrity, biogeochemical cycles, land system change and novel entities, which includes plastics, pesticides, and other human-made chemicals – have now been transgressed.

Human disruption to Earth’s freshwater cycle is now so great that it puts the long-term habitability of the planet at risk. The threat is no longer just local or temporary – water risks interact with biodiversity loss, climate change, soil erosion and pollution, and set damaging changes in motion that are difficult to limit and reverse.

The world’s unseen water will be an important focus of the upcoming World Water Week leading conference, which is taking place from August 23rd until September 1st in Stockholm, Sweden. Invisible water is rapidly becoming much more visible. As inhabitants of Earth, we must recognize and facilitate the right to access clean, safe water for everyone. But along with recognizing and facilitating this right, we must also manage and take care of this precious resource.