The state of engineering – food and water security

A row of harvesters drive towards the camera, collecting rows of crops, as the sun sets behind them.

Photo by Joao Marcelo Marques on Unsplash

7 September 2018


While global food and water security remains a key priority across the board, there are problems hindering our ability to deliver it. For several reasons – population growth, climate change, lack of infrastructure, the high cost of maintaining existing infrastructure, and individual prioritisation, for example – our ability to achieve universal food and water security is not only uncertain, but an increasingly complex problem.

While challenges in food and water security are often associated with developing countries – where poor infrastructure or inhospitable climate conditions limit either access to safe drinking water or agricultural productivity – a lack of resource security is a threat for the developed world as well.

Engineers around the world are diligently working to produce innovative, relatively low-cost technologies that improve grey and green infrastructure, create new and efficient processes, and optimise social behaviours. If through these innovations, we can increase supply, reduce the demand on existing systems, and allocate resources differently, then we are a step closer to achieving our goal.

Water security

You will likely be familiar with the basic water-cycle diagram we first encounter in primary school: evaporation, condensation, precipitation, and collection (or some variation thereof). It is useful for teaching the natural path that water follows, but it fails in one key regard: it doesn’t depict variations of access. Water is not universally afforded by rain; when you start to introduce various elements of contemporary society to the cycle – large populations sizes, dispersion systems, mass migration, climate variation, and pollution of water sources – it becomes clear that water security can’t be boiled down to its availability in this basic model.

In developing regions, where there isn’t the necessary infrastructure or financing to easily obtain water through other methods, a lack of naturally-occurring water sources significantly affects water security. Additionally, the amount of that water considered safe to drink is even smaller due to a concurrent lack of infrastructure providing sanitation and sterilisation.

In more developed regions, where the infrastructure does exist and provides access to clean drinking water more readily, water security is still an issue. In order to deal with rapid urbanisation, the increasing number of high-density populations around the world, and changing behaviours on both an individual and collective level, improvements to integrated urban water management (IUWM) are required. To do this, a systems-wide approach is needed to optimise processes at all stages: increasing supply while reducing consumption, costs, and energy. This is where engineering comes in.

One of the reasons why it’s hard to discuss water security without also discussing food security is because of the significant effect that water availability has on our food supply. All the water use mentioned above, for example, only accounts for around 31% of freshwater usage – 12% goes to households and 19% to the industrial sector. Agriculture, by comparison, accounts for 69%. The challenge of supplying adequate water supply to each individual still exists, but there is an increasing need to prioritise agriculture-exclusive water security.

Food security

Food security, much like water security, is a challenge faced by countries all over the world. One in three people across the globe currently suffer from malnutrition in some form, and the effects of climate change – such as a reduction in water supplies, the amount of viable land to grow food, and the nutritional content of said food – will only continue to exacerbate these problems.

A secondary complication arises logistically, as there is a physical limit to the amount of available land. This land, in turn, must increasingly be shared for urbanisation, a rising sea level, time for the land to recover from degradation, and producing biologically-based energy sources. As such, there is a need for sustainable intensification (SI) of available land; an oxymoron used to describe ways of increasing the agricultural yield without utilising more land. Again, this is where engineering comes in.

The state of engineering – food and water security

Engineering has a role to play all along the pipeline, and engineers are needed in order to develop solutions that provide sustainable, accessible, and safe resources at a low financial, economic, and environmental cost. Whether new smart technologies cut down on resource usage and waste and influence behaviour, whether low-cost water purification systems or vertical farms afford new ways to produce and access resources, or whether new bioengineered foods, agri-tech solutions, or processing models optimise our current production processes – engineering will help us to take our next steps towards achieving global food and water security.

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