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The World is at Risk of Going Backwards on Food and Water Goals


24 JULY 2019 

Mervyn Piesse, Research Manager, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme



The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015. They are designed to provide countries with a framework to develop national legislation that works towards reducing global hunger, poverty and inequality, among other developmental challenges. A new report, however, finds that progress on reducing food insecurity and addressing nutritional challenges has been almost non-existent. In some instances, the situation has deteriorated since the SDGs were adopted. Given the challenges that are likely to affect global agriculture and water availability in the next ten years (when the SDGs are set to expire), it is unlikely that much progress on those goals will be made.


Reducing food insecurity and improving nutrition are major aims of the SDGs. On those two fronts, however, the world is falling short. Global food insecurity rose in each of the four years since the SDGs were adopted and climate change threatens to decrease the nutritional content of food, possibly leaving more people undernourished by 2030. It is also unlikely that everyone will have access to readily available clean water and sanitation by 2030, particularly in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

The proportion of the world’s population that is undernourished steadily declined over the first 15 years of this century. Since 2015, however, that trend has stalled and is at risk of reversing. The number of undernourished people increased from a low of 785 million in 2015 to 821 million in 2018. Most of those people are located in Africa and parts of the Middle East. Rising food insecurity in those regions is mainly attributable to conflict and extreme weather events. It is likely that the world will fall short of the goals to reduce undernourishment and improve global food security.

Agricultural production is projected to increase by 15 per cent during the decade to 2028. Demand for food is also expected to increase over that time, however, with most of that likely to be caused by population growth in Africa, India and the Middle East. Agricultural production in those regions is likely to lag behind the rest of the world, however, leaving those regions dependent on international trade. If surplus food from outside those regions could be transported to them, there is a chance that supply would remain ahead of demand. There is no guarantee that will occur, however.

Climate change is expected to reduce the nutritional content of food. Food derived from plants is likely to be most affected by any reduction in nutrient availability. By extension, it is probably the case that the people who are most at risk of being undernourished as a result will be located in countries that are heavily dependent on plant-based food. They are most likely to reside in the lower- and middle-income countries of South and Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa. It is equally likely, however, that everyone will be affected to some extent as the protein, iron and zinc content of wheat (which is the most widely consumed cereal globally) is expected to decline by up to 12 per cent by 2050.

Global water use has increased by about one per cent every year since the 1980s and is expected to continue to do so until 2050. Rising demand in developing countries accounts for most of that increase. Developed countries continue to account for most of the water consumed globally, however, and the developing ones are merely catching up. The wealthier regions of the world are in a better position to reduce their water consumption through efficiency measures.

The world is not on track to meet the targets related to food security, improved nutritional outcomes or ensuring access to water. The threats posed to the global food and water supplies are only likely to further derail progress on the SDGs.


Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.


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