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Global Future of the Environment

Global Future of the Environment

September 12, 2016

Responding To: The Challenge of Climate Change

The Effects of Climate Change on Food and Water Security

Daniel Stoll

Perhaps one of the most vexing challenges posed by global climate change for policy makers is the impact such change will have on resource security, particularly food and water.


As the World Bank Group makes clear, climate change will have a direct
and probably devastating—impact on water resources availability and usage. Higher temperatures and changes in extreme weather conditions that characterize global climate change will affect the availability and distribution of rainfall, snow melt, river flows, and groundwater resources. This impact will, in turn, be manifested in several ways: diminished agricultural production, degradation of potable water sources, and a contraction in the amount of water available generally.

The economic consequences of such stresses are clear. Countries will need to invest massively in water-related infrastructure (e.g. irrigation schemes, water distribution systems, coastal zone management, etc.) to cope with the challenges posed by global climate change to water resources.  And, as the Food and Agriculture Organization warns, “climate change will impact the extent and productivity of both irrigated and rainfed agriculture across the globe” (Climate Change, Water and Food Security, 2011). Agriculture already accounts for almost 70 percent of global water withdrawals; that percentage is expected to increase to meet the demands of a rapidly burgeoning global population that is confronting the challenges of global climate change. Moreover, access to potable water will become more challenging. Currently, almost 1.8 billion people live in countries or regions experiencing absolute water scarcity; that number could increase to 2.8 billion by 2025 (http://water.worldbank.org/topics/water-resources-management/water-and-climate-change).

The impact of climate change on food and water security extends beyond the agricultural sector. As UNESCO, in its 2016 report Water and Jobs makes clear, over 40 percent of the world’s total active work force are in job (e.g. agriculture, mining, resource extraction) that are heavily dependent on access to adequate supplies of water. Another 1 billion jobs are classified as “moderately water-dependent”. Any contraction in water resources or reduction in access to water will ripple across the economies of many countries.

Finally, threats to global water and food resources could also have serious geo-political implications, as countries compete more intensively for scarce resources. In regions such as the Middle East that are already beset political unrest and intra-state rivalries, increased competition over strained water resources will complicate already unsettled political conditions.

In short, global climate change will not only make it difficult for countries to meet the basic food and resource needs of their expanding populations, it will also exacerbate tensions within the international system as states compete for increasingly scarce resources.  

Daniel Stoll is senior associate dean for faculty and academic affairs in the School of Continuing Studies. His research focuses on issues of water and food security, as well as water resources management, particularly in the Middle East.

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