Articles | Volume 9, issue 1/2
09 Jun 2005
09 Jun 2005

Consumptive water use to feed humanity - curing a blind spot

M. Falkenmark and M. Lannerstad

Abstract. Since in large parts of the world it is getting difficult to meet growing water demands by mobilising more water, the discourse has turned its focus to demand management, governance and the necessary concern for aquatic ecosystems by reserving an "environmental flow" in the river. The latter calls for attention to river depletion which may be expected in response to changes in consumptive water use by both natural and anthropogenic systems. Basically, consumptive use has three faces: runoff generation influenced by land cover changes; consumptive use of water withdrawn; and evaporation from water systems (reservoirs, canals, river based cooling). After demonstrating the vulnerability to changes in consumptive use under savanna region conditions - representative of many poverty and hunger prone developing countries subject to attention in the Millennium Development Goal activities - the paper exemplifies; 1) changes in runoff generation in response to regional scale land cover changes; 2) consumptive use in large scale irrigation systems. It goes on to analyse the implications of seeing food as a human right by estimating the additional consumptive use requirements to produce food for the next two generations. Attention is paid to remaining degrees of freedom in terms of uncommitted water beyond an environmental flow reserve and to potential food trade consequences (so-called virtual water). The paper concludes that a human-right-to-food principle will have major consequences in terms of altered consumptive water use. It will therefore be essential for humanity to address river depletion to avoid loss of resilience of the life support system. This will demand a deep-going cooperation between hydrology, ecology and water governance.