We will fail to feed the world until we fix the water crisis

By Peter Brabeck-Letmathe

24 August 2012 See comments (21)

global water challenge
GLOBAL WATER CHALLENGE: International partnerships can help us progress towards a solution.

The world is walking towards a crisis that it barely recognises. In scale and significance, it dwarfs all the others it is intricately connected with.

This issue is water. As unbelievable as it sounds, we are running out of it and the window we have to solve this issue is narrow and rapidly closing. Over the next 20 years, the world’s thirst for water will grow by 50%. By 2030, water withdrawals will exceed natural renewals by 60%.

This will have a devastating impact on the quality and cost of the water we all need to survive, but in ways that are perhaps not immediately obvious. The water we drink, clean, and cook with represents only the smallest part of the water we use. Far greater is the 90% of the world’s total supply of water that we use to grow the food we eat.

This is because it takes one litre of water to produce one calorie of food. Compared to the 3-4 litres of water we drink, the average daily diet requires up to 6,000 litres of water to grow the crops that find their way on to our plates.

Put this in the context of feeding a growing population and you immediately realise that the acute water shortages, which will directly affect a third of the world’s population by 2030, will also ultimately lead to a critical shortage of food the world over. Less food will result in higher prices and plunge millions into poverty and famine.

We face global shortfalls by 2025

If we continue the way we are using water today, and factor in higher food needs for a growing population, competing water users such as oil and thermal energy, as well as municipal water for a rapidly growing number of urban dwellers, we should expect global shortfalls in cereal production in the order of 30% by 2025. This would be a loss equivalent to the entire grain crops of India and the United States combined.

As we can see, the crises affecting water and food are interdependent. Astonishingly, however, it remains absent from international to-do lists.

Suggesting solutions to a formidable challenge

By writing this blog, my aim is to bring greater visibility to the issue, and to dare to suggest solutions to such a challenge. In practice, many of these challenges are intensely local. This was first, and perhaps most powerfully, brought to life for me in March 2004 during a conversation with farmers in the Indian Punjab region.

With water tables falling across the region one metre per year, these farmers were dealing directly with the effects of an overuse of water to irrigate fields with pumps originally subsidised by the government and electricity provided for free. They knew that if groundwater tables continued to fall, their own livelihood would be at risk. But with neighbouring villages likely to continue withdrawing water, and ongoing government subsidies, the farmers saw the utter futility of changing their own habits without effective joint efforts of all major stakeholders in their watershed; and so they wouldn’t.

Played out on an international scale, this is the crux: without partnership between all those who share a stake in the problem we won’t make progress towards any meaningful solution.

The enormity of the challenge is great, and the need to act is urgent. Over the coming weeks, I will also explore and share some of the thinking and potential solutions that I come across as part of my job and through my involvement in international groups such as the WEF 2030 Water Resources Group (WRG). There is no silver bullet to solving a challenge of this enormity, so practical thoughts on how we can better address this issue are always welcome.

  1. CARLO GALLI @ Nestlé

    24 Aug 2012 - 15:45 (GMT)

    This water blog is a great idea.
    I jump on it and bring in if I am allowed some more food for thoughts on this matter.
    One key word for the next generations of water managers is “Water Stewardship”.
    Water Stewardship is all about responsibility and actions aimed at conservation of a shared resource.
    To do this, I totally agree that individual actions towards efficiency are not enough; engagement with stakeholders on common water issues is a key factor.
    In fact, one can be very efficient in-house and achieve water savings in order to reduce impacts on overexploited water resources but if playing in isolated manner, this will not prevent these savings to be potentially counter-acted by increased use by other stakeholders or new allocations for water rights given to new users.
    I would certainly like to see that the Water Stewardship concepts will help in future companies and other users to think through and improve their influence with (particularly) Governments.
    In fact, sphere of influence to lead to real action can cover both the factory level and its immediate surroundings with collective action initiatives (e.g. the Alliance for Water Stewardship concept) and a higher level with advocacy groups that can influence government stakeholders (e.g. the Water Resources Group). I think these two dimensions could connect in future and this would be of mutual benefit. Probably, the WRG can best advise governments on the best levers to be adopted, whilst the AWS can provide the “bottom up” mobilization of local stakeholders in individual watersheds.

  2. Aldo Gutierrez @ Nestle Toluca Soluble Coffee Factory, Mexico

    24 Aug 2012 - 16:31 (GMT)

    Thank you for sharing these reflections with us Mr. Brabeck. Is there a way I can consult a report where I can take a look at the calculations you are presenting us? I want to have a deeper understanding of the worldwide situation and make some research on what is beign done in Mexico so I can come up with ideas.

  3. Reza Lahooti @ Nestle Pakistan

    25 Aug 2012 - 07:16 (GMT)

    An outstanding note on water crisis which clearly demonestrate the problem and show us the wrong path we are walking in. Figures are striking. I beleive lack of awwarness is one of the most imporatant factor among those which have led us to this situation. What role Nestle can play to solve or minimize this issue? What else we can do in our company to reduce our total corporate water consumption further? I know we are doing a lot but certainly we can do much more. We have done a great job on safety and it has become people's mindset; we must do the same on water to reduce our water footprint. Nestle as biggest food company in the world must set the bench mark for food producers in the world for minimum water consumption per ton of product. Can't this become a marketing tool to encorage people to buy products which less water is used in their processing?

  4. Andres Cabrera @ Colombian Red Cross

    27 Aug 2012 - 02:20 (GMT)

    The challenge, as you say, is an enormous one. One of the key aspects, that is rarely brought up explicitly but is an underlying factor, is the sensibilization of communities in terms of family size. It is usually a given that population will continue to grow at an astounding rate which by 2025, as you mentioned, will leave a vast percentage of it in a dire situation. Part of the solution, I believe, would be to really address the growth of our population, we continue to reproduce as thought our resources are infinite when this generation, and many past it, have witnessed that this is not the case. Additionally to all the work that needs to be done in the preservation of our water resources is to sensibilize the world that we hold the demand side of the equation and proper planned parenthood is a key aspect in order to lessen the load we are currently putting on our planet.

    Thank you for taking a stand on such a vital subject for our lives, now and in the future.

  5. madhava de silva @ EM.EM.Agencies

    27 Aug 2012 - 11:49 (GMT)

    water is the one of most important natural resource we ever had and we must protect it for future generations.
    most of the countries like ours (sri lanka) has more and more natural water supplies like
    rivers,streams,lakes and many more.
    thank you and nestle to your valuable commitement about this resource

  6. James Amoroso @ Consumer Analyst Group of Europe

    27 Aug 2012 - 19:01 (GMT)

    Congratulations, Peter, on this great initiative to create interactive global debate on this vital topic! If I can help to get the message across to the investment community in a relevant way, I will. I might even add a few insignificant comments of my own from time to time.

  7. Richard Newfarmer @ International Growth Centre, Washington DC

    28 Aug 2012 - 14:37 (GMT)

    Many thanks. A very, very important issue. I'm glad people are thinking about it. I look forward to the blog.

  8. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe @ Nestle

    29 Aug 2012 - 10:43 (GMT)

    @James Amoroso.

    Many thanks James, I look forward to your comments and an ongoing exchange of views. Peter

  9. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe @ Nestle

    29 Aug 2012 - 10:51 (GMT)

    @madhava de silva

    Madhava, I am pleased to see your comments, and I applaud your concern for this issue. As you know, I am chairing the Water Resources Group (please see http://www.2030wrg.org/) It might be interesting to find out, at one stage, whether the tools of WRG might be of use in Sri Lanka. Peter

  10. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe @ Nestle

    29 Aug 2012 - 10:55 (GMT)

    @Andres Cabrera

    "One of the key aspects, that is rarely brought up explicitly but is an underlying factor, is the sensibilization of communities in terms of family size...Part of the solution, I believe, would be to really address the growth of our population"

    Andres, thank you for your valuable comments and you raise an important issue. UN just published new forecasts for world population: more than 10 billion by 2100. Population growth, and the increasing pressure it places on the quality and availability of water and other resources, is indeed one of the greatest multipliers in this debate. This is a very complex subject, however, I believe that with the right approach to water use, it would still be possible to ensure water for all, as well as the water needed for our food. I may return to this point in future. Peter

  11. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe @ Nestle

    29 Aug 2012 - 12:04 (GMT)

    @Carlo Galli

    Thank you, Carlo, you have raised several good points. Water Stewardship is indeed an important concept for the private sector, providing it does not blur responsibilities, and in particular, the responsibilities of governments. Only with sufficiently clear and comprehensive strategies – watershed by watershed (i.e., river basins, common groundwater basins) – and robust criteria for cost effective action will we be able to solve the issue of water overdraft. Without this level of detailed thinking and joined-up action, we risk achieving little more than a cluster of well-meant ideas, where the greater whole is weaker than the constituent parts.


  12. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe @ Nestle

    29 Aug 2012 - 12:08 (GMT)

    @ Aldo Gutierrez

    Aldo, thank you for your interest and questions.

    Most of the figures I reference are drawn from a global report by the 2030 Water Resources Group. The report is called Charting our Future: Economic frameworks to inform decision-making, and includes the robust methodologies used as well as the end results (www.2030waterresourcesgroup.com/water_full/).

    Based on this research, the Mexican water authority, Conagua, produced its own report which may also be relevant to you. Here’s a link: http://agendadelagua2030.conagua.gob.mx/Doc_Foroagendadelagua2030/Folleto.pdf.

    As you may already know, Nestlé Mexico participates in the work.

    Hope that helps.


  13. Valerie Issumo @ Prana Sustainable Water

    31 Aug 2012 - 00:38 (GMT)

    For a big part of food, the link between farmers and their markets is via commodities exchanges and/or via credit lines for trading those soft-commodities: trading those goods = trading the related traceable water footprints >
    conditioning credit lines for the trade and consequently for the production of those commodities to
    - the check of the water exploitation index at watershed sourcing level,
    - the use in priority of recycled water from wastewater to increase sanitation and consequently reduce water pollution that damages the environment,
    - the request of drip irrigation or efficient water use...etc...
    is easy and possible
    >> those catalysts (organised commodities markets & trade finance for commitments of goods that are mostly not produced at the time of conclusion) can help to solve simultaneously the water, social, environmental and jobs issues but if for 3 years i am struggling for convincing credit lines managers and commodities exchanges to check the sustainability of value chain of the water input they finance, today through this blog i feel and hope we will achieve good results together so please join me to convince those water footprints trading catalysts.
    Thank you, Valerie
    PS please let's not forget that wastewater is also a good raw material for energy so switching wastewater thanks to clean-technologies into recycled water resource biogas or other energy e.g. to conserve/process food ... can also be leapfrogged via credit lines priorities

  14. Arturo Guerrero @ R&D

    31 Aug 2012 - 20:05 (GMT)

    There are several questions that can be tagged along our chairman’s article: why is the water situation awareness level so low? What can we do better as a company and as citizens in our respective countries? What is the role of companies and governments and how they should interact considering the changing nature of politics?

    I don’t believe there are simple answers to any of these questions, the factors are many, the differences (water availability and policies) among countries and regions are abysmal and water is becoming a political/power instrument.

    Coming from the technical side of our company and considering the main water consumption drivers (90% consumed in growing and harvesting food) it is only natural to ask what the technical community can do. One of the first things that comes to mind is the need for technical education of crop growers on the optimum use of water and how to preserve its quality (free of chemical and organic contaminations), especially in developing countries. The technical community (R&D’s, PTC’s and AG’s) should dedicate a part of their time to support agricultural initiatives for water reduction and increasing production yield. This will benefit growers and become a good opportunity for “intellectuals” to get hands on the water and raw material resourcing problems and understand better the efforts behind the production of our raw materials.

    Secondly, we should be proud of our inventing capacity, mostly translated into new products and advances made in food safety and health care sciences. However, I ask the question, how much of these efforts have been focused on new technologies for handling, managing, treating, recycling and preserving water? We see some sporadic efforts here and there, mostly associated to factory processes, yet low inventing capacity aiming exclusively to the better use of water. I believe we have technologies that can be extrapolated and simplified for helping with the water crisis. Take for example the technologies related to liquid extraction, why we cannot use the same for eliminating pesticides from drinking and irrigation water. The usual response is cost but have we made and effort to simplify and cost reduce it? Another example is the philosophy behind NCE and which relates to implementing measures and control systems in processes that allow early reaction and solution, why not do the same with crop growers via CO-Agri?

    In short, the technical community has the potential to help, we just need to find the way to make water a top priority in our daily activities and find ways to transfer our expertise to the raw material growers via the leadership of CO-Agri and CO-SHE.

  15. Marco Zanchi @ Nestlé Italy

    05 Sep 2012 - 13:23 (GMT)

    Can we imagine that with the time more and more people will be more sensible to less and less meat consumption for improving the water balance? Will this have a positive effect on the water balance, considering that may be another part of the world population will start to afford meat?

  16. Valerie Issumo @ Prana Sustainable Water

    08 Sep 2012 - 01:21 (GMT)

    Every body needs approx 2400 calories a day a certain amount of water for hygiene, drinks, clothes... : in the USA 1 calorie is produced sometimes with 10 liters of water (sprinklers i/o drip irrigation), in Israel they manage 0.10 liter for one calorie so let's take Peter's number of 1 liter water/calorie : if for example in Pakistan cane sugar could be produced with 1340 liters of water (Better Cane Initiative/Bonsucro) instead of 1500 liters (waterfootprint.org), the State or exporters could wish to make sure that there is sugar for export (e.g. for currencies reasons) and this will be for the good sake of efficient water uses and consequently reduce water vulnerabilities and consumptions : this can be incentivized via organized (commoditized) commitments of the sugar importers for the waterfootprint 1340 liters/kg i/o 1500liter/kg.
    The questions are: should the prices of water for internal food consumption be better than for export ? Would the World Trade Organisation empower local consumptions of local productions through water footprint pricing according to final use, to the smalest water footprint, to input(s) water footprint’s distance (to reduce also the carbon footprint) and other incentives to make sure that the water for the calories produced by and for the local population is priced according to priorities and good practices/efficiency?

  17. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe

    10 Sep 2012 - 11:02 (GMT)

    @Marco, you raise a good point. Let me provide some numbers.

    Remember the rule of thumb; it was established by Ismail Serageldin at our first water discussion in Davos almost 10 years ago: you need about one litre of water to grow one calorie. The same calorie in the form of meat takes about ten times the amount of water. So, reducing meat consumption could really help solve the issue of overdraft of freshwater.

    According to FAO and OECD (OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2012) people in EU 27 eat in average 180 g of meat of all kind per day (beef, veal, pig, poultry, sheep), people in Oceania 242 g, and in the US even 258g (all measured as retail weight, i.e., not including bones etc.). I think you do not need an extensive study on nutrition to suggest that some reduction might be possible.

    In developing countries, consumption is only 69 grams per capita and day. OECD/FAO expect an increase over the next ten years to 78 grams. While we should address meat consumption in industrialised countries, I think it would be unfair to complain about or even campaign against this modest increase in the developing world. People there, with some prosperity, are no longer satisfied with one or two bowls of rice per day, they want some chicken on it, some beef or sheep as part of their meals.

    But here comes the effect of big numbers of population (www.census.gov/.../informationGateway.php): let us assume we can convince Westerners to reduce their meat intake by say 10% -- it would reduce total meat consumption by slightly more than 11,000 tons per day. But at the same time, the very modest catching up of the people in the developing world as forecasted by FAO/OECD means additional daily meat consumption almost 10 times the volume of these potential savings.

    So let us talk about the need to be reasonable in the consumption of meat in advanced economies, but at the same time let us also have no illusion, the global consumption of meat is bound to grow. So we have to find other ways, more comprehensive solutions, which brings me again to 2030 Water Resources Group.

    But like for many serious issues there is not one solution only, I would appreciate further comments from my readers.


  18. Dietric D. Williams @ Nestle USA

    14 Nov 2012 - 01:02 (GMT)

    I ran across this blog as I was researching information for a predictive analytics software program that i am researching as part of an incubator project in grad school. Interestingly enough, my assignment for the marketing verticals is water location. Needless to say that I will be using this blog as part of my presentation to the projects BOD when suggesting potential target markets.

    Thanks Mr. Chariman!

  19. Chirag Amin - Consultant @ A.C.E. Ltd.

    24 Aug 2016 - 14:22 (GMT)

    Dear Peter,
    This blog is very interesting and informative. I came across it during my research in how much water the world needs to meet projected population growth, ways to provide clean, reliable water supply in cost-effective manner, and dire water scarcity in many parts of the world. Many of the topics covered in your blog are indeed food for thought and highlight the pressing need to provide water relief to people facing daily challenge of having enough water to live and carry out daily activities. I look forward to reading the posts on various topics covered herein. Thank you for your contributions, raising awareness , and generating timely discussion on this very important human need, i.e, water for living, that calls for smart, prompt, collaborative, effective, and long-term solutions.

  20. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe - Chairman @ Nestle

    06 Sep 2016 - 12:59 (GMT)

    Dear Chirag,

    Many thanks for your kind words. Water is a fascinating topic and issue, and as such also highly relevant. And, also since my blog gets closer to its end, I would very much like to echo and underline your last sentence: ‘Water for living calls for smart, prompt, collaborative, effective and long-term solutions.”

    Regards, Peter

  21. Chirag Amin - Consultant @ A.C.E. Ltd.

    24 Aug 2016 - 14:22 (GMT)

    Dear Peter,
    This blog is very interesting and informative. I came across it during my research in how much water the world needs to meet projected population growth, ways to provide clean, reliable water supply in cost-effective manner, and dire water scarcity in many parts of the world. Many of the topics covered in your blog are indeed food for thought and highlight the pressing need to provide water relief to people facing daily challenge of having enough water to live and carry out daily activities. I look forward to reading the posts on various topics covered herein. Thank you for your contributions, raising awareness , and generating timely discussion on this very important human need, i.e, water for living, that calls for smart, prompt, collaborative, effective, and long-term solutions.

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