Water and Food ? An Inseparable Couple

This may seem an odd choice for a post for World Food Day 2010, but as yesterday’s theme (for Blog Action Day) was water, without which there would be no food production, I thought it might be a good idea to marry the two themes.

I am surrounded by food. It grows in the fields I walk past every day and affects every part of the rural economy in which I live. I understand its connection to the world, both as a source of nourishment for human beings and as an integral part of the natural ecological processes that shape our existence on this planet. I am also acutely aware of the role that water plays in this vast cycle of constant re-generation, having just been through a growing season that brought far too much rain for most of the Canadian Prairies and cut yields in some areas by a considerable margin.

It may seem odd to be complaining about too much water when so many complain about never enough. Canada is widely considered to be a water-rich country, and indeed in many ways it is. It does have one of the largest renewable water supplies in the world, and it’s estimated to have access to around 20% of the world’s surface freshwater.¹

Canada abounds with lakes, rivers and wetlands that are constantly renewed by precipitation (which it also generally has plenty of).

But all is not so perfect in this watery Eden, because a majority of the country’s water resources aren’t where they are most needed. In the southern parts of the country (where most of the people, agriculture and commercial activity are), the amount of annual water yield can be extremely variable and unpredictable.

Nowhere is this more true than on the Canadian Prairies, the bread basket of Canada (and, to a certain extent, the world). Canada is the second largest wheat producer in the world (and most of that wheat is grown on the Prairies). It exports 71% (or around 19 million tonnes) of wheat a year and uses around 8 million tonnes domestically.

A recently released report¹ by Statistics Canada states: “This variability in the flows of renewable water resources is of interest because the lack of predictability affects economic activities, including agriculture. This variability of flows is illustrated by the severe floods and droughts that occur in this region. For example, the flood of the Red River in 1997, which  brought about the worst flooding the region had seen since 1852, forced 75,000 people to abandon their homes, and caused $ 450 million in damages.”

Most of the crops grown on the Canadian Prairies rely on precipitation, even those that are irrigated, as the water bodies used for this purpose are generally re-charged by snow melt and rainfall. And that hasn’t always been reliable, as Stats Canada tells us;

“The drought of 2002 had adverse impacts on the agricultural community. In 2002, crop yields

in Alberta declined…the yield of spring wheat was down 29%, barley was down 27% and canola was down 13%.”

A pretty precarious position for an area that grows a big proportion of the world’s wheat, not to mention other important cereal, pulse and oilseed crops, and one that is getting a little more precarious all the time.

According to the report, from 1971 to 2004 the Prairies had the highest variability in water yield than anywhere else in Canada, with the maximum and minimum volumes fluctuating by up to 200% during some months of the year. The average water yield for the area decreased during this 34-year period by an average of 3.5 km³ a year, which is equivalent to an overall loss of 8.5% of the total water yield, which is almost as much as the total annual volume supplied to the residential population of Canada.

Which just goes to show that, no matter how “well off” we may consider ourselves in terms of water resources, we should not be complacent about trying to conserve this precious resource if we want to continue feeding the rest of the world…and ourselves.

¹Human Activity and the Environment Freshwater supply and demand in Canada 2010 . Statistics Canada.