Water scarcity and food security

David Krone
24 August 2021

When water becomes scarce it increases food insecurity in our area, we can’t grow our own food, how can we maintain our own health and protect our families.  Things have gone from bad to worse, our municipality failed to listen to us. We are currently relying on any source of water we can find sharing with our animals.” – Lucky Tshabalala from Sisonkhe Environmental Justice Network


Our planet’s blood stream is coming under increasing threat. As a result, many South Africans must deal with daily issues of water scarcity and food insecurity. South Africa is a water scarce country with uneven distribution of rainfall: 60% of our river ecosystems are threatened and 23% are critically endangered. Access to clean water is a struggle for many: 18% of South Africans rely on communal taps, whilst another 9% rely directly on springs, rivers, and wetlands. Unfortunately, when it comes to water scarcity and food security in South Africa, it is the poor that suffer the most. This is largely driven by environmental degradation, socio-economic inequality, and governance issues. For a contextual focus and more information on South Africa’s water sources click on this link for an interactive map. This map is a great infographic source which provides contextual and reliable information concerning environmental degradation and scarcity. As you will see here, arguably the land uses which pose the greatest threat to our water sources are cultivation, plantations, over-grazing and mining. This blog will unpack the issue of water scarcity and how it relates to food security and will provide possible positive solutions going forward.

Food security in South Africa is a complex issue and needs to balance the 5 A’s as popularised by Cecilia Rocha of the Centre for Studies in Food Security: availability, accessibility, adequacy, acceptability, and agency. Water is a key ecosystem service which underpins food security in complex ways. Water scarcity risks pushing food systems dangerously near or beyond tipping points. Recently the fragility of our food system in South Africa was exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, drastically increasing hunger. This was largely down to issues of access, driven by the informal sector being locked down and incomes drying up. This has created space to foster a new food system which is based on local needs and capacities, and which supports small scale farmers from farm to fork. Supporting small scale farmers can be a leverage point to support food security among the most vulnerable population groups, both in rural and urban areas. Furthermore, promoting adaptations such as regenerative farming practices, which are more water-wise and resilient, can help move us towards a more sustainable future with food security and sovereignty.

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Food security stats in South Africa from 2011 to 2014 (www.pa.org.za)

The 6th assessment report by the IPCC indicates we can expect an increase of droughts and other extreme weather patterns in South Africa due to climate change. The theme of this year’s World Water Week, ‘building resilience fast’, thus could not be more relevant to the Global South. We need to start building more resilience around food systems and water and encouraging climate change adaptations which will guard us all and especially the poor against expected climate shocks. As Noel Oettle from Environmental Monitoring Group said, "Adaptation at its best is visionary, empathetic towards people and planet, primarily about society and people, not about technologies and finance. We have to work together, and stop working in silos, otherwise we might find ourselves sitting on the tops of our silos as the rising ocean laps at our feet". 

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Some stats on the impacts of drought on food production and inflations for 2016 (www.pa.org.za)

Although water scarcity and food insecurity impact the poor directly, this is problem for everyone. This is not just a problem for government or NGOs to solve. We need to come together. Business needs to begin to see sustainability issues as their duty of care, so that they can build resilience around the systems and planetary boundaries which underpin their organisations. Water scarcity and food security affect the systems which businesses are nested in, and it no longer makes sense to conduct business as usual - even for the staunchest capitalist. We need to start having conversations between stakeholders and form cross-sector partnerships to start imagining new models of business that are regenerative.

On an individual level it is important to remember our rights, as the right to adequate drinking water is guaranteed under the Constitution. According to the Centre for Environmental Rights, “Section 24 of the constitution provides that everyone has a right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or wellbeing. However, the lives and livelihoods of many people and communities are put at risk by those that destroy our natural resources, harm our health and compromise the ecological integrity of our environment. Hold these persons accountable!” One way we can do this is through reporting environmental violations through the Centre for Environmental Rights here

World Water Week is a fantastic initiative which gives us the opportunity to bring attention to these issues. If we can come together and start to have conversations about this life-giving element and the food we eat, we can begin to feed a more inclusive and peaceful future.

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Kurland Tsitsi-tuinier Gardening club securing food availability with vegetable gardens.

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Bruce, L.A. 2020. COVID-19: Dirty water for sale in rural communities - Wits University. [Online], Available here  [2021, August 24].

Centre for Environmental Rights. n.d. Report an Environmental Violation. [Online], Available here: [2021, August 24].

Centre for Environmental Rights. n.d. Why we must secure our water source areas now. [Online], Available here, [2021, August 24].

Dentoni, D., Pinkse, J. & Lubberink, R. 2021. Linking Sustainable Business Models to Socio-Ecological Resilience Through Cross-Sector Partnerships: A Complex Adaptive Systems View. Business and Society. 60(5):1216–1252.

Drimie, S. 2020. Building a sustainable food system for SA post-COVID. [Online], Available here, [2021, August 24].

Rocha, C. 2007. Food insecurity as market failure: A contribution from economics. Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition. 1(4):5–22.