Dwindling water resources to threaten food security and livelihoods

A FAO and World Water Council report warns that overconsumption, degradation and impact of climate change will reduce water supplies in many regions, especially in developing countries.
Dwindling water resources to threaten food security and livelihoods

In 2050, there will be enough water to help produce the food needed to feed a global population expected to top nine billion, but overconsumption, degradation and the impact of climate change will reduce water supplies in many regions, especially developing countries, FAO and the World Water Council (WWC) have warned in a paper published today.

The paper, ‘Towards a water and food secure future’, calls for government policies and investments by the public and private sectors to ensure that crops, livestock and fish are sustainably produced in ways also aimed at safeguarding water resources.

Such actions are essential in order to reduce poverty, increase incomes and ensure food security for many people living in rural areas, the paper stresses.

"Food and water security are inextricably linked. We believe that by developing local approaches and making the right investments, world leaders can ensure that there will be sufficient water volume, quality and access to meet food security in 2050 and beyond," said Benedito Braga, president of the World Water Council, on the occasion of the launching of the paper at the 7th World Water Forum in Daegu and Gyeongbuk, South Korea.

"The essence of the challenge is to adopt programs that involve investments in longer-term returns, such as the rehabilitation of infrastructure. Agriculture has to follow the path of sustainability and not the one of immediate profitability," added Braga.

"In an era of accelerated changes unparalleled to any in our past, our ability to provide adequate, safe and nutritious food sustainably and equitably is more relevant than ever. Water, as an irreplaceable element of achieving this end, is already under pressure by increasing demands from other uses, exacerbated by weak governance, inadequate capacities, and underinvestment," said FAO Deputy Director-General, Natural Resources, Maria Helena Semedo.

"This is an opportune time to re-visit our public policies, investment frameworks, governance structures and institutions. We are entering the post-2015 development era and we should mark it with solid commitments," she further added.

Agriculture will still account for most water consumption
By 2050 some 60 percent more food – up to 100 percent in developing countries – will be needed to feed the world while agriculture will continue to be the largest user of water globally, accounting in many countries for around two-thirds or more of supplies drawn from rivers, lakes and aquifers.

Even with increasing urbanisation, in 2050 much of the global population and most of the poor will continue to earn their living in agriculture. Yet the sector will see the volume of water available to it reduced due to a competing demand from cities and industry, the paper states.

As such, through technology and management practice, farmers, especially smallholders, will need to find ways to increase their output on the limited land and water available.

Currently, water scarcity affects more than 40 percent of people in the world, a proportion set to reach two-thirds by 2050.

This is largely due to overconsumption of water for food production and agriculture. For example in large areas of South and East Asia, in the Near East, North Africa and North and Central America, more groundwater is used than can be replenished naturally.

In some regions intensive agriculture, industrial development and growing cities are responsible for polluting water sources, the paper says.

Policy changes and investments essential
Improvements aimed at helping farmers increase food output using increasingly limited water resources — including in the area of crop and livestock genetics – are widely needed. Empowering farmers to better manage risks associated with water scarcity will also be critical, according to FAO and the WWC. This will require a combination of public and private investment as well as supportive training.

To address degradation and waste, water institutions should be more transparent in their allocation and pricing mechanisms, the two organisations argue. Crucially, water rights need to be allocated in fair and inclusive ways.

In particular, the paper highlights the need to guarantee security of land and water tenure and access to credit in ways that enhance the role of women, who in Africa and Asia are responsible for much of farming.

Addressing climate change
The effects of global warming including unusual rainfall and temperature patterns and more frequent extreme weather events, such as droughts and cyclones, will have an increasing impact on agriculture and water resources, the paper warns.

Mountain areas provide up to 80 percent of the world’s water resources, but the ongoing retreat of glaciers as a result of climate change threatens the existence of those supplies in the future.

Forests on the other hand use water but also provide it – at least one third of the world’s biggest cities draw a significant portion of their drinking water from forested areas.

This underscores the importance of stronger efforts to protect forests and upland areas where much of the world’s freshwater supply originates.

Today’s paper calls for policies and investments to enhance adaptation at the watershed and household levels, such as improved water storage facilities, wastewater capture and reuse, as well as research that generates more resilient agricultural production systems for smallholders.

The World Water Forum (12-17 April) is the largest international event aimed at finding joint solutions to the planet’s main water challenges. In addition to jointly producing the White Paper with the World Water Council, FAO also teamed up with several partners and issued the ’2030 Vision and Global Framework for Action’, a set of policy guidelines and recommendations to improve groundwater management, during the forum. 

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