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The Water Orchestra: Emphasizing The Hidden Value Of Water In All Dimensions Of Life

Protecting and preserving water is a priority that now has been spotlighted at all levels.

From the recognition of the universal human right to water to the Agenda 2030, from the Ramsar Convention on Waterfowl Habitat to the Convention on Transboundary Watercourses and Lakes, the blue gold has been recognized as a crucial aspect of life.

Because water is everywhere outside of us and inside of us, considering that almost 60% of human bodies are composed of water.

Because water is at the core of macro landscapes, ecosystem services, agri-food landscapes, and even micro aspects, such as humidity.

Because being exposed to both excessive (floods) and insufficient (desertification, aridity) quantities of water compromises survival.

Yet the fact that we are still so far from achieving almost all of the national and international goals, as the SDG 6 monitoring and reporting clearly emphasizes, denotes that something is still eluding us.

2 billion people did not have access to safe drinking water in 2020. More than 100 countries are not meeting the goal of sustainably managing water resources. Almost half of the global wastewater treatment is not safely managed. More than 2 billion people live in water stressed countries. The state of groundwater is already compromised and overexploited, yet in the future our dependence on them will grow exponentially given the effects of climate change on surface water.

The real question is: how can we expect to truly and efficiently protect water and its related ecosystems if we still are ignoring some of its functioning and are still struggling to understand its underlying complexities?

The topic for this year’s International Water Day — making the invisible visible — starts from this premise: spotlighting what we are still forgetting and underestimating, like the value of groundwater. In fact, the Updated Groundwater Catalog, launched in concert with the World Water Forum, will be a fundamental tool at least to collect more information and knowledge — to then be translated at the policy level.

To this aspect, I would like to add the powerful mosaic behind the infinite (and often hidden) interconnections behind this precious resource.

Water And Diplomacy — Making Blue Conflicts End

Water is a crucial aspect of diplomacy, only by considering how much water is unevenly distributed geographically between states and how much water insecurity fuels competition between economic sectors, conflicts between States, climate migration or internal displacement within one same state. Promoting water as a key element to foster peace is part of the vision of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, Pedro Arrojo Agudo.

Yet, ensuring democratic access to water resources (both surface and groundwater) is a complex challenge that is grounded in geopolitical contexts, efficient cooperative management of transboundary water sources between states (in the case of rivers, lakes or aquifers crosscutting two or more states), between different water sources (in the case that a stream is overexploited due to intense groundwater extraction), or even given issues of resource privatization and water grabbing (as in some jurisdictions groundwater is perceived as connected with land ownership) as clearly warned in the latest UNESCO Report on water.

Water: The Blue Thread Connecting Ecosystem Services

Traditionally, ecosystem services are grouped into different categories: provisioning services, meaning all the products that we can benefit from nature (such as food, natural medicines, fibers); regulating services, meaning the services that we gain from the regulation of ecosystem processes (air quality, movement of nutrients from the soil, climate regulation, erosion control); supporting services, meaning all the services that are preparatory and in support for other ecosystem services (soil generation, photosynthesis); cultural services, which are linked to religious, traditional, and spiritual values. All these services are directly or indirectly associated with water: freshwater access, flood and drought mitigation, water cycling. “Aquifers, soils, lakes and wetlands store water. Wetlands and soils filter it. Rivers transport it. Floodplains and wetlands lower flood peaks in downstream cities. Mangroves, coral reefs protect coasts against storms and flooding. All of these services from nature contribute to our water security, our health and our livelihoods,” is perfectly summarized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Irrigation And Food Production

It is undisputed that food and water are two ends of the same magnet: without water we could not produce food, as well as food incorporates a lot of water. Today, 30% of the water needs from our households and 40% of global irrigation totally depend on groundwater, reveals the 2022 UNESCO report.

We are talking about increasing reliance on finite and slowly-regenerating resources, whose degree of depletion can be understood in the excessive and intensive abstraction compared to its natural capability of being recharged by rain and snow. In addition to increasingly frequent climate alterations and geopolitical imbalances, amongst the major challenges of the food and water nexus, there is fostering climate and water-smart food systems, able to produce food using less water, halting indiscriminate water withdrawals, reducing water losses, boosting efficient water infrastructures, but also providing concrete solutions for allowing aquifer replenishment.

Nutrition: For Humans Begins With Soil And Water

The primary cause of desertification is the removal of vegetation, which causes removal of nutrients from the soil and makes the land infertile and unusable for arable farming, reports the European Environmental Agency (EEA). In this sense, it is clear how much water and soil well-being are strictly dependent: nutrients carry from both water and underground micro-organisms into food, to overcome malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies. This means that if soil and water are polluted or contaminated, so does the food we produce from that area. In this sense, the warning on “plasticulture” and the risks that agricultural soils are even more polluted than marine environments as FAO revealed in one report is real. Increasing salinity, but also pathogens, pesticides, chemicals (and the related cancerogenic risks) identify the current state of soil and water. This is particularly evident for groundwater, as its contamination “is practically irreversible,” warns UNESCO.

Water And Energy Nexus

Supporting fossil fuels is not only detrimental in terms of GHG emissions but also in terms of water impact, being highly water demanding. The same for biofuel production and fracking (shale gas extraction).

It is clear that achieving SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy) means to adequately balance human and environmental needs, to consider the sustainability of energy also in terms of water constraints, from renewables to questionable new market trends.

A Water-Shaping Landscape

Water shapes environmental landscapes, from macro to micro contexts.

The case of large dams and their increasing aging phenomenon has made much discussion in recent years, in terms of landscape disturbance, potential environmental detriment, and the decision whether to go for the high costs of maintenance (to keep them safe and efficient) or dismantle them before time. Also the rapidly changing urban/rural landscape is influencing the state of water. Rural electrification has been a principal driver for groundwater development, especially where rural power grids have been extended into areas that would otherwise have relied on diesel fuel or wind energy” warns the UNESCO report. These are challenges that add on the risks of unsustainable water use of Solar-Powered Irrigation Systems, and increasing reliance of groundwater reserves from the urban population, that to date is providing public water supply to 310 million people in the EU and 105 million people in the US.

Water Culture

For millennia, water has been at the center of spiritual symbolism and religious rituals in human communities. Still, some communities continue to live in a close relationship with water, in all its forms, such as the Māori population of New Zealand, who consider still today their personal health closely linked to the health of their water bodies. However, in the majority of the cases happening at the global scale, the recent recognition of having a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment as a human right does not correspond to adequate natural and water protection. Water culture is embedded in the recreational activities around water ecosystems, in the direct relationship with the territory (and our recent disconnection with nature), on cultural heritage, in hydrogeological approaches, in the promotion of (slow and regenerative) tourism activities, in the food culture, conviviality, and traditions, but also in consumer choices directly or indirectly impacting water.

The Price Of Water

“Distinctions must be kept in mind between quantity and quality of growth, between its costs and return, and between the short and the long term. Goals for more growth should specify more growth of what and for what.” — Simon Kuznets

The price of water inefficiencies and contamination is paid not only by the natural ecosystem, but also by the whole of society and global economies. Water dispersions inevitably affect the food and agriculture sector and healthcare (just think that every dollar invested in improving water quality generates an economic return of 5.50 dollars according to the World Health Organization!). Yet, data reports that in the USA alone, pesticide contamination of groundwater reaches almost the cost of two billion dollar per year. On the contrary, since last year water has been listed on the Nasdaq California financial market, with the Water Index, posing strong oppositions from those who believe that essential resources, such as water, should be preserved as common goods of humanity, free from market speculations.

Drops Of Hope

We cannot ignore all these dimensions, complexities, and layers when tackling the water issue. We cannot expect to generate long-lasting water solutions as long as science speaks only with scientists, diplomacy speaks only with States, business speaks only with entrepreneurs, when nobody is willing to exit their comfort zone of hyper-specialization, because water affects us all and each dimension of life.

However, drops of hope have started to appear. The recent UNESCO report showcased 28 real-life examples where collaboration has led towards aquifer recharge, with concrete benefits in terms of better water management, water quality, quantity, ecosystem services, community wellbeing, and economic stability. From developed to developing countries (Italy included) the report evidenced that, regardless of the contextual peculiarities, sustainable solutions can also be economically viable (50% reduction in costs compared with conventional alternatives).

Also within the Future Food Institute’s mission, water is a backbone of its integral ecological regeneration approach. Water is a Future Food Initiative, merging theoretical analysis with concrete multi-stakeholder projects. Water has been at the basis of innovation in Sicily (Italy), where a call for startup was launched last year in partnership with Finish to solve advancing desertification, while fostering water-smart agriculture and irrigation in support of the cultivation of the Etna IGP Lemon.

Water is guiding cultural regeneration, thanks to the recent connection with the UNESCO’s Water Museums Global Network — and specifically with the Water Museum of Venice.

At the Future Food Institute, water is at the heart of collective prosperity, from sustainable landscape planning — supporting rivers’ flow restoration to the promotion of regenerative agricultural methods, guiding all the activities of the Paideia Campus in Pollica.

There are always two kinds of solutions to problems: the easier ones, based on short-termism and exclusive benefits, and the harder ones, based on long-term vision and common well-being.

Nature — and water specifically — are like a symphonic orchestra: to play the melody harmoniously, they need both a large variety of instruments and the ability of single players to access different musical notes. A concert can never be composed of one single note.

This is then our challenge: let’s act as the orchestra leader and let water express herself in all its beauty — a resource able to foster individual, collective, cultural, political, diplomacy, environmental, and economic regeneration.

The Future Food Institute is an international social enterprise and the cornerstone of the Future Food Ecosystem, a collection of research labs, partnerships, initiatives, platforms, networks, entrepreneurial projects and academic programs, aiming to build a more equitable world, grounded in integral ecological regeneration, through enlightening a world-class breed of innovators, boosting entrepreneurial potential, and improving agri-food expertise and tradition.

Future food advocates for positive change through initiatives in Waste & Circular Systems, Water Safety & Security, Climate, Earth Regeneration, Mediterranean Foodscape, Nutrition for All, Humana Communitas, and Cities of the Future as we catalyze progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Learn more at www.futurefoodinsitute.org, join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, or YouTube. Or attend a program through the FutureFood.Academy!



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Erika Solimeo

Erika Solimeo

Environment & Ocean Activist & Researcher. Water & Nature-rights focused. Opening minds to the Future of Food. @Ffoodinstitute #FutureFoodKnowledge