Soil and Water – Asia-Pacific’s Bread and Butter

Jong-Jin Kim is Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Asia and the Pacific, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Photo provided

Here, in the world’s most populous region, a crisis that involves the Earth beneath our feet slowly unfolds. The soil producing our food and supporting the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of farmers and others is threatened.

Often referred to as the "Skin of the Earth," soil acts as a silent steward, supporting the production of 95 percent of our food in this region. It retains water, serves as an animal habitat, and plays a crucial role in regulating our climate by storing more carbon than all the world's forests combined. However, the ability of our soils to provide these ecosystem services is increasingly threatened due to decades of soil degradation and water scarcity caused by overuse and misuse.

Soil and water rely on each other, and that’s critical to feed a hungry world. Here, in the Asia-Pacific region, some 90 per cent of our freshwater is consumed in agricultural activities alone, considerably more than the 75 per cent used by agriculture, on average, worldwide.  

Yet, over three-quarters of the Asia-Pacific population is grappling with water insecurity. Much of this has been caused by mismanagement of our water and soil resources. Unsustainable practices have exacerbated the situation, contributing to biodiversity loss in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and further challenging agrifood systems' resilience in extreme weather events. The fact that soils are not a renewable resource makes their preservation an even more urgent matter: it can take up to one thousand years to form one centimetre of soil, and this exact centimetre can be destroyed in only a few minutes through careless acts of degradation. 

To better understand the close relationship between soil and water, it is a critical necessity for countries to work domestically and across cross borders to ensure broader sustainable development in the Asia-Pacific region.

There are answers

While pressure on this soil-water-food nexus increases, reversing the degradation is still possible. But we all need to take responsibility. We all need to act. Together, we must promote soil and water management at all levels. We can all do our part by changing daily habits to preserve fresh water. In the meantime, policymakers and other stakeholders can collaborate to implement sustainable soil and water management practices. This involves planning and action to ensure more efficient use of fresh water, promoting sustainable use of fertilizers and pesticides, employing appropriate irrigation methods, including how we drain and pump water, and paying more attention to monitoring related data – such as soil and groundwater salinity levels. Indeed, all land users, particularly farmers and smallholders, need training in sustainable soil and water management, and that means inclusive access to technology transfer.   

Implementing sustainable soil management practices is both possible and crucial for transforming our agrifood systems, making them more resilient to extreme climate events. By doing so, our soils can become more prosperous in carbon and hold more water, benefiting the interconnected relationship between soil, water, and plants. This improves the overall health of the region's environment and enhances its ability to mitigate the effects of climate change. Research has found that Asian soils can sequester 180 megatonnes of carbon annually if sustainable high-carbon input soil management practices are adopted.

World Soil Day

Addressing soil degradation requires comprehensive domestic and international efforts involving government policies, research initiatives, and awareness programmes. Initiatives like the Glinka World Soil Award and the King Bhumibol World Soil Day Award, launched by the Government of Thailand, acknowledging the late king's dedication to sustainable soil management and its role in food security and poverty reduction, serve as exemplary models of localized endeavours. These efforts aim to recognize and encourage sustainable soil practices, fostering awareness and responsible management. Indeed, we circle 5 December on our calendars each year to mark World Soil Day and to remind everyone of soil’s importance to us all.

It is hosted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO); the Global Soil Partnership strives to enhance soil governance and promote sustainable soil management for food security, climate change adaptation and mitigation, and sustainable development.  

FAO is sowing the seeds of sustainability in a world hungry for solutions, emphasizing the importance of understanding and addressing the complex nexus between soil health, sustainable agriculture, biodiversity conservation, and essential ecosystem services. In doing so, we aim to help countries achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and achieve better production, nutrition, environment, and life for all.

As we navigate the multiple challenges of recovery from the pandemic, conflicts, and the need for systemic agrifood systems reform, celebrating World Soil Day should extend beyond 5 December, calling for collective action and a daily commitment to safeguard the Earth's lifeline – our soil. It's our bread and butter.

Jong-Jin Kim is Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Asia and the Pacific, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)

Related Articles