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World Soil Day 2023: Soil and water, a source of life

In the midst of COP28, World Soil Day is also celebrated today. Held annually on December 5th, it calls the world’s attention to the importance of healthy soil and the sustainable management of soil resources.

This day is promoted, mainly, by the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) and has done so since 2014, after the FAO Conference unanimously endorsed World Soil Day in June 2013 and requested its official adoption at the 68th UN General Assembly. To which the UN General Assembly responded by choosing December 5th, 2014, as the first official World Soil Day.

Soil and water, a source of life

This year’s theme is: ‘Soil and water, a source of life’. It focuses on raising awareness about the pivotal link between soil and water for sustainable and resilient agrifood systems. FAO explains that the survival of our planet hinges on the crucial connection between soil and water, with over 95 per cent of our food originating from these vital resources. Soil and water make up the foundation of our agricultural systems. But what is soil exactly? In a 2015 report, FAO defined it as: “soil is the upper layer of the Earth’s crust transformed by weathering and physical/chemical and biological processes.”

Soil and water make up the foundation of our agricultural systems

Like water, soil is often considered an endless resource and is often over-exploited. This leads to soil erosion, which has serious consequences, including disrupting the natural balance, reducing water infiltration and availability for all forms of life, and risking the sustainability of future generations. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization: “Of the Earth’s soil, 33% are already degraded and over 90% could become degraded by 2050.” Furthermore, a total of 75 billion tons of fertile soil are removed every year from the global soilscape by erosion. As a result, precious soil resources, which should be preserved for future generations, are continuously reduced.

Climate change is also playing its part by degrading our soils further and putting excessive pressure on our already depleted water resources. In relation to water, this phenomenon is worsening both water scarcity and water-related hazards, such as floods and droughts, by disrupting precipitation patterns and the entire water cycle through rising temperatures. Climate change is affecting soil erosion most directly through changes in extreme precipitation, according to recent research

  • Healthy soil plays a crucial role as a natural filter, purifying and storing water as it infiltrates into the ground (FAO)
  • 95 per cent of our food comes from soils thanks to the power of water (FAO)

The need for integrated management

World Soil Day 2023 calls for an integrated management of soil and water as interconnected resources and implementing sustainable soil management practices.

  • The health of the soil and the quality and availability of water are interconnected.
  • Implementing sustainable soil management practices enhances water availability for agriculture. Healthy soils, enriched with organic matter, play a crucial role in regulating water retention and availability.
  • Efficient use of quality water, promoting the sustainable use of fertilizers and pesticides, employing appropriate irrigation methods, improving drainage systems, controlling pumping, and monitoring soil and groundwater salinity levels are essential to maintaining sustainable agricultural practices.
  • Sustainable soil management is key to improving water productivity in irrigated systems.

Sustainable soil management is key to improving water productivity in irrigated systems

It also warns of the consequences of improper soil and water management affecting not only soil erosion, but also soil biodiversity, soil fertility, and water quality and quantity.

  • Water scarcity leads to the loss of soil biodiversity, while leaching and eutrophication from agriculture practices lead to the loss of biodiversity in water bodies.
  • The mismanagement of pesticides and fertilizers not only threatens soil and water quality but also poses significant risks to human health and ecosystems.​
  • Poor irrigation and drainage practices are some of the main drivers of soil salinization​​.
  • Rising sea levels contribute to land loss, increasing the risk of soil salinization and sodification, which can negatively impact agricultural productivity.
  • Green water supports crop growth and biomass production facilitating nutrient uptake (FAO)
  • Healthy soils act as a carbon sink helping to adapt to climate change and mitigate its effects (FAO)

Soil and water conservation

The FAO also highlights the central role soil and water conservation play in mitigating and adapting to climate change. Effective conservation practices, such as minimum tillage, crop rotation, organic matter addition, and cover cropping, improve soil health, reduce erosion and pollution, and enhance water infiltration and storage. By enhancing the soil's capacity to absorb and store water, these measures aid in mitigating the impacts of extreme weather events, such as floods, droughts and sand/dust storms. Furthermore, well-managed soils act as a natural carbon sink by sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. Integrating soil and water conservation into sustainable land management practices is essential for building resilience in the face of a changing climate and fostering a more environmentally sustainable future.

World Soil Day serves as a global platform that not only celebrates the significance of soil but also empowers and involves citizens, governments, organizations and businesses around the world to enhance soil health. This year, the theme ‘Soil and water, a source of life’ underscores the vital fact that water and soil are interconnected, making up the foundation of our agricultural systems. Worldwide, sustainable soil practices must be put in place to improve water availability for agriculture. Only then, can we begin to improve the livelihoods and health of people and ecosystems.