This blog post originally appeared on Peter's 'Fresh from the Field' blog on 13th December 2015.
Soil and water management; carrying on as we are currently, is not an option
So, with the bang of a gavel last Saturday evening, representatives of 195 nations reached a landmark accord that will, for the first time, commit nearly every country to lowering planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions to help stave off the most drastic effects of climate change. This is of course very encouraging news, however, only time will tell if collectively, humanity can deliver on this agreement.
Climate change is of course caused by a host of different reasons and is intricately linked to the way we manage and use the resources that the world offers us. If you just look at two such resources, soil and water, you can see that we need to change our ways big-time and rapidly.
A new report on soils published this month by the Sustainable Food Trust, is to put it bluntly, alarming. I have taken some extracts for you to read:
“Soil is a vital resource for the future of humanity. It needs to be protected and enhanced. Instead, more than half (52%) of all fertile, food-producing soils globally are now classified as degraded, many of them severely degraded (UNCCD 2015).
Throughout human history, at least twelve past civilisations have flowered on fertile soils and made huge advances, such as the development of written language, mathematics and financial systems, only to disappear over time as their soils progressively degraded and could no longer feed their populations.
These civilisations occupied, or depended on, defined geographical regions: the Sumerians in Mesopotamia, the Roman Empire’s exploitation of the once highly fertile soils of north Africa, parts of ancient Greece, China, Central America, India and elsewhere. The damage done to soils in these regions is still present today, but new civilisations were able to spring up elsewhere, converting forests and native grasslands to agriculture and thriving on the fertility that had built up over thousands of years in the soil.
Today, however, due to the global trade in food, the global adoption of exploitative farming methods and the extent to which forests and natural grasslands have already been converted to crop production, it is the entire global civilisation that is threatened by progressive soil degradation.
Research by the Economics of Land Degradation Initiative in 2015 calculated that soil degradation is costing between $6.3 and $10.6 trillion dollars per year globally, but these costs could be reduced by enhancing soil carbon stocks and adopting more sustainable farming methods.
A research group at Cranfield University estimated that in England and Wales soil degradation costs £1.33 billion annually. Half of this cost relates to loss of soil organic carbon (SOC), and the intensity of farming is a major cause of soil carbon loss.
Agriculture and the food we eat depend on soil. Under appropriate management soils are an infinitely renewable resource, while under inappropriate management they are effectively a very finite resource. Under natural conditions it can take 500 - 1,000 years to form an inch of soil from parent rock”. (I have highlighted this).
Here are a few statistics to ram the message home – if it really needs to be, any longer, that is. Recent estimates indicate that every year:
- Soil degradation affects 1.9 billion hectares
- 12 million hectares (23 hectares a minute) of land is lost to food production
- 24 billion tonnes of fertile soil is irretrievably washed or blown away (3.4 tonnes for every human on the planet).
Read more from this report here >
Meanwhile, perhaps the most important world resource of all, water, is also causing major concerns.
Across the globe, reports reveal huge areas in crisis today as reservoirs and aquifers dry up. More than a billion individuals – one in seven people on the planet – now lack access to safe drinking water.
The world faces a water crisis that will touch every part of the globe, a point that has been stressed by Jean Chrétien, former Canadian prime minister and co-chair of the InterAction Council. “The future political impact of water scarcity may be devastating,” he said. “Using water the way we have in the past simply will not sustain humanity in future.”
With expected increases in population, by 2030, food demand is predicted to increase by 50% (70% by 2050) (Bruinsma, 2009), while energy demand from hydropower and other renewable energy resources will rise by 60% (WWAP, 2009).
These issues are interconnected – increasing agricultural output, for example, will substantially increase both water and energy consumption, leading to increased competition for water between water-using sectors.
The world runs on water. Clean, reliable water supplies are vital for industry, agriculture, and energy production. Every community and ecosystem on Earth depends on water for sanitation, hygiene, and daily survival.
Yet, around 700 million people in 43 countries suffer today from water scarcity.
By 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world's population could be living under water stressed conditions.
With the existing climate change scenario, almost half the world's population will be living in areas of high water stress by 2030, including between 75 million and 250 million people in Africa. In addition, water scarcity in some arid and semi-arid places will displace between 24 million and 700 million people.
So you can see that although the Paris agreement is all about “climate change” – if you lift off the lid and look in, it is in fact about so, so, much more. I have just highlighted two elements here. Let us all hope that it truly marks a monumental turning point in the way we treat the world’s resources, otherwise, the future really does not bear thinking about.
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