RegenerAction 2022: Preserving the blue gold

The water challenge: Safety and security to lead towards the blue peace

Ensuring water in sufficient quantity and in adequate quality for an ever-growing population is one of the major challenges facing our society.

Although the right to water has been recognized in the last decade as a universal human right and its protection is enshrined in several international resolutions and documents, including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, we are still far from ensuring safe, clean, accessible, and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all.

Water, as the basis of all life on earth, and as the primary building block of the human body, should connect individuals to their communities and the surrounding environment to pursue collective well-being. Instead, too often water scarcity, exacerbated by global warming, climate alterations, and unsustainable consumption and production models, still divides people and separates states. This is the real challenge affecting water and our society: moving from water conflicts to forms of blue peace.

The pressing question is: how can we expect to truly and efficiently protect water and its related ecosystems while still ignoring some of its functions and still struggling to understand its underlying complexities?

The water paradoxes: Between scarcity and overconsumption

There is one element that particularly unites every human being with the planet: the fact that both are largely composed of water. If we look at the Earth, not coincidentally referred to as the Blue Planet, two-thirds of its surface is composed of water. Similarly, so too is the human body: in the early years of childhood, we are more than 90 percent composed of water, a percentage that then gradually diminishes in adulthood, as the percentage drops to an average of 60 percent.

Water is the basis of life in all its forms: producing food requires water, and this aspect is justified in the fact that irrigation in agriculture contributes to producing 40 percent of total food. Nutrition depends on water: in fact, healthy soils naturally contain freshwater, from which plants absorb the necessary nutrients to grow. Water shapes landscapes, ensures biodiversity richness, drives tourism, is a vehicle of identity and spiritualism, and ensures prosperity.

Yet, water brings with it loads of paradoxes. A quarter of the global population is affected by extreme water stress and 700 million people worldwide are at risk of displacement by intense water scarcity by 2030, while more than 100 countries are not meeting the goal of sustainably managing water resources. The state of groundwater is already compromised and overexploited, but 25–50% of all water distributed globally is lost due to inefficient water management and water connections. We live on an increasingly thirsty planet, but still, we waste water like never before: global water usage has increased sixfold in the last 100 years, especially in the domestic sector, whose water demand grew by +600% from 1960–2014.

This is a scenario that requires urgent actions, thoughtful leadership, and good water governance, especially now that water has officially entered the commodity market (Nasdaq Veles California Water Index).

The European Strategy for water: Filling the gaps between climate, biodiversity, and the circular economy

There are several strategies, plans, and directives that have been elaborated by the European Union to ensure adequate protection of freshwater ecosystems and human water rights.

Both the two most common EU strategies adopted to implement the EU Green Deal, the EU Biodiversity Strategy and the Farm to Fork Strategy, touch water in several parts. With the EU Biodiversity Strategy, the EU commits to restoring at least 25,000 km of rivers by removing natural and anthropogenic barriers, and increasing the protection of terrestrial, marine, and freshwater ecosystems (10% of which should be listed as ‘strict protection’).

Under the Farm to Fork Strategy, the EU sets clear objectives to increase water security starting from food production: by 2030, members states shall halve the use of chemicals and hazardous pesticides, antimicrobials for farm animals, and nutrient losses – all contaminants that from the fields are mainly responsible for water contamination.

Water pollution is a hot topic also tackled by the Zero Pollution Action Plan for Air, Water, and Soil. It is a key deliverable of the European Green Deal, which sets 2030 targets to reduce pollution at the source, such as nutrients, chemical pesticides, pharmaceuticals, plastic, and urban and industrial wastewater, and the EU Water Framework Directive, that commits national governments to produce stricter management plans for rivers and impose a complete restoration of polluted waters “by 2027 at the latest.”

In terms of access to safe drinking water, the EU recently adopted the Drinking Water Directive, under which it establishes new quality standards for drinking water and hygiene requirements for all materials that come into contact with it.

According to the EU vision, water protection and preservation also passes through regulations of water reuse, water efficiency, and water savings. These are all aspects touched by the Circular Economy Action plan, the EU Climate adaptation strategy, which also fosters water sharing across borders, and the adoption of drought management plans.

From greater awareness to ecosystem restoration: Bringing back “water in our hands”

Restoring the ancient harmony with our planet requires greater respect for natural cycles and stronger preservation of biodiversity. We cannot completely control and predict extreme weather events but we have the responsibility to take action on its causes, limiting our impacts on water ecosystems, and decelerating the rate of its exploitation and overuse.

Resilience to climate change requires a great sense of adaptation and mitigation to be put in place holistically, through different lenses, and at different levels: from cities to farms, from producers to consumers.

Future Food Institute places water at the heart of its activities: not only including water among the eight Future Food Initiatives, the main challenges that we, as humanity, need to address to prosper together, but also an area to translate theoretical analysis into concrete multi-stakeholder projects. Water has been driving innovation in Sicily (Italy), where a call for startups was launched in 2021 in partnership with Finish to solve advancing desertification while fostering water-smart agriculture and irrigation in support of the cultivation of the Etna GPI Lemon.

Preserving water to preserve local agri-food diversity is in fact part of a stable partnership between Finish, National Geographic, and the Future Food Institute which, over the past three years, has generated concrete actions in support of the yellow tomato in the Cilento Area, innovative solutions to preserve the Lemon for Etna GPI, and strategies to sustain olive trees in the Apulia Region.

Water is also indirectly addressed through the activities undertaken by our Food Alchemist Team, in their mission to prevent, rethink, and reduce food waste (and therefore water waste), with innovative and tasty recipes.

Water is guiding cultural regeneration, thanks to the recent connection between the Future Food Institute and the UNESCO’s Water Museums Global Network — and specifically with the Water Museum of Venice to restore our direct relationship with the territory and awareness of active environmental protection, starting from cultural heritage and the beauties of freshwater ecosystems.

Especially in our Paideia Campus Living Lab, water is at the heart of collective prosperity, from sustainable landscape planning — supporting rivers’ flow restoration – to the promotion of regenerative agricultural methods. “Restore” is a project funded by the Campania Region under the Rural Development Plan that has seen the Future Food Institute active in the improvement of water resource management in the Cilento area (Italy).

As a vital component of our integral ecological regeneration approach, water is also fundamental to our educational programs, instilling awareness of the current challenges and paradoxes of the blue gold. For this reason, in both the in-person and digital versions of our Boot Camps, water has been tackled under several lenses, from regenerative agricultural practices to climate-smart and regenerative kitchens. Through Future Food, water challenges also entered Italian classrooms, thanks to the Hackathon in the Schools projects.

Why aren’t students asked for solutions to current challenges as an alternative and collaborative learning experience? Why do we usually offer learners answers rather than open questions? This idea was precisely at the basis of the water challenge launched by Cosmopolites, in collaboration with the Foundation Amore per il Sapere and Future Food Institute to Italian high-school students and teachers.

No circular economy approach can be followed and effectively implemented without the active participation of all the actors of society. Each individual, from policymakers to consumers, needs to play their part.

For this reason, within the EU AgriFood Week, water has been central in debates, conferences, field trips, and action plans.

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