As the number-one user of water worldwide, the agriculture sector must be in the lead in addressing the rising global demand for water and its potential drain on the earth’s natural resources, FAO said on the occasion of World Water Day.
Agriculture accounts for about 70 percent of all freshwater withdrawn from lakes, waterways and aquifers around the world. The figure is closer to 95 percent in several developing countries, where roughly three-quarters of the world’s irrigated farmlands are located.
However, food is water. It takes 1 000 to 2 000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of wheat and 13 000 to 15 000 litres to produce the same quantity of grain-fed beef. Without water, we cannot produce; and without it, we simply cannot eat.
FAO is the coordinating agency within the UN system for World Water Day 2007. This year’s theme, “Coping with Water Scarcity”, highlights the need for increased cooperation at international and local levels to protect global water resources.
Challenge of the century
Speaking at the World Water Day celebration at FAO Headquarters in Rome, FAO Director-General Dr Jacques Diouf called coping with water scarcity the “challenge of the 21st century”.
The bulk of that challenge lies in finding more effective ways to conserve, use and protect the world’s water resources. Global population is expected to reach 8.1 billion by 2030. To keep pace with the growing demand for food, 14 percent more freshwater will need to be withdrawn for agricultural purposes in the next 30 years.
“As population grows and development needs call for increased allocations of water for cities, agriculture and industries, the pressure on water resources intensifies, leading to tensions, conflicts among users, and excessive strain on the environment,” said Dr Diouf.
Climate change has raised the stakes. Global warming has been blamed for more frequent droughts. Climate change has also intensified storms and flooding, which destroy crops, contaminate freshwater and damage the facilities used to store and carry that water.
Smallholder farmers, who make up the majority of the world’s rural poor, often occupy marginal lands and rely on rainfall to sustain their livelihoods, making them particularly vulnerable to climate variability.
Still, according to FAO, opportunities exist to improve the ability of poor people to lift themselves out of poverty under conditions of greater water security and sustainability.
“With the right incentives and investments to mitigate risks for individual farmers, improving water control in agriculture holds considerable potential to increase food production and reduce poverty, while ensuring the maintaining of ecosystem services,” said Dr Diouf.
While most agriculture is rainfed, irrigation has made an unquestionable difference in easing hunger and improving livelihoods - accounting for only 20 percent of total cropland but for 40 percent of all food produced.
Interventions need to be tailored to local, national and regional conditions, according to FAO. Effective pilot projects and programmes in countries as diverse as Tanzania, Bolivia and Sri Lanka have included small-scale irrigation schemes or community-based systems for harvesting rainfall and protecting catchments that feed into main waterways.
But better agricultural practices can also lead to substantial increases in productivity in large-scale irrigation schemes, releasing pressure on water resources. At the same time, FAO advocates support for interregional and river-basin programmes that coordinate the responses of several governments or agencies, as in the countries that share the Nile River and Lake Chad basins in Africa, both of which have been compromised by drought and human activity.
“The potential exists to provide an adequate and sustainable supply of quality water for all, today and in the future,” said Dr Diouf. “But there is no room for complacency. It is our common responsibility to take the challenge of today’s global water crisis and address it in all of its aspects and dimensions.”