Water for Food and Ecosystems

Louise O. Fresco
(Assistant Director General - Agriculture Department)
4 November 2004, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

M. Chairman,
Honourable Ministers
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Although in politics the opposition between agriculture and ecosystems are often stressed, they are inevitably linked. They use the same resources - land and water - and are based on the same biological processes - photosynthesis and biomass production. Agriculture is nothing else but an ecosystem from which primary and secondary products are appropriated by humans. The history of agriculture is characterised by a progressive and increasing control of biological processes for the sake of increased production of food and other products. During the 20th century, this has enabled us - on a global scale - to meet the food demands of a more than tripled world population. Today, agricultural cropland consumes 13 percent of total global evapo-transpiration - of which irrigation accounts for 1.5 percent. While from total global biomass production, 20 percent is now used by humans.
This achievement has not been realised without its costs. As has been increasingly stressed over the past two decades, the advancements in agriculture are inevitably associated with disturbances of natural ecosystems. This is particularly true in agriculture's use and pollution of available fresh water resources.
At the same time, the public demand for a sustainable use of our natural resources has also been increasing. The need to harmonize future food production and ecosystems through sustainable water management has been adopted as a common goal in international agreements such as: the World Water Forum III in Kyoto, the Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the RAMSAR Convention. However, in the intervening years, more emphasis has been placed on water and sanitation rather than on integrated water management. Finding new ways for agricultural water use and management to alleviate negative impacts is essential, not only to maintain the integrity and productivity of our ecosystems, but also to sustain the conditions under which agriculture can contribute to food security, poverty alleviation and economic growth.
So how can we successfully implement these commitments for a sustainable Integrated Water Resources Management for food and ecosystems? Or in other words: How can agriculture produce food and other agricultural products and at the same time deliver environmental services such as protection of watersheds?

This question is particularly relevant in Africa, where food security and poverty reduction remain our immediate concerns. Recent research shows that growth in agriculture is the most beneficial for the poor: a one percent increase in yields results in a decrease of 0.6 to 1.2 percent of people living on less than $1 per day. Hence, Africa needs to continue to invest in unlocking the potential of its diversified agricultural systems - in rainfed agriculture, irrigation and mixed systems.
This challenge to agriculture has local and global implications. Food production can be used locally or be traded; environmental services benefit local people as well as the global environment. Local and global developments need not be opposed but can be synergistic. We should identify win-win situations linking the local and the global levels through markets for agricultural products and environmental services. The recent NEPAD initiative which has chosen agriculture, infrastructure and markets to address the specific concerns of Africa, should further help in meeting these challenges.
To exploit the opportunities for harmonizing the needs for food and ecosystems in future development initiatives, we will need to address three particular issues in this conference:

1. Knowledge

The interactions and interdependencies between agriculture and ecosystems are numerous, location specific and characterised by the complexity of their biophysical mechanisms. This requires us to acquire a broader knowledge of these interactions and processes. Two aspects are of importance here: 1) diversification of food and management systems that are specifically adapted to the local conditions; and 2) integration of sectoral and disciplinary knowledge and approaches that help us to reach a common understanding and to find common solutions.

2. Values

In making our strategic decisions for development and the use of natural resources such as water, we need to be guided by criteria. Attributing the right value to food and environmental services, above all in water systems that serve multiple purposes, then becomes an important issue. However, this is not a matter of attributing economic values alone. Of equal importance is how we can ensure that producers of food and environmental services are fairly rewarded, and that all the costs of the use of natural resources are equally shared.

3. Institutions

This requires an institutional context that fully embraces the objectives of sustainability and equity. We need an enabling environment to achieve coherence in national and international policies, as well as in local natural resources management arrangements. There are no easy solutions and they will differ according to country. Whatever the answer, local stakeholders - above all, farmers and resource users - and national governments need to be fully engaged.

The mobilization of water resources for agriculture in Africa is still well below the level of other regions. In Africa at present only 5 percent of total renewable fresh water resources are being used, compared with 20 percent for Asia. Likewise, only 7 percent of total arable land is being irrigated in Africa, compared with 42 percent in South-Asia and 36 percent in East and South-East Asia. There is thus great potential to address the needs of Africa in food, poverty reduction and ecosystems. This requires investment in increasing the productivity of the multitude of irrigated and rainfed systems. Developing the water resources for multiple services - from agro-forestry to irrigation to the joint management of aquatic ecosystems will be part of this. As indicated in one of the five development pillars of NEPAD, the level of investments required to further develop the water resources in Africa are considerable; amounting to US $ 37 billion to increase the area of irrigation from the present 7 percent to 15 percent by 2015.
Water is also crucial for Ethiopia, which has done so much to raise awareness of water and to mobilize all stakeholders for the protection of watersheds and their development.

Let me share some of FAO's experiences with you in developing an ecosystems approach to agriculture, and in applying a productive services approach to ecosystems.

Applying an ecosystems approach to agriculture means focusing on its optimization within its ecological surroundings; to regard the agricultural sub-system as a part of the wider ecosystem. The context of food production and ecosystems in Africa is characterized by its rich diversity. It is precisely this diversity that allows agricultural producers in Africa to increase productivity within the niches of its natural and socio-economic surroundings. Realising this potential requires us to adopt a stronger focus in research and development on the specificities and richness of Africa, by for instance selecting and developing genetic treats in agricultural crops for the specific environmental and growing conditions in Africa. The new NERICA rice varieties that improve yields under upland and rainfed rice growing conditions, as traditionally applied in parts of Africa, are a welcome example.
At FAO we also apply an integrated approach to natural resources management that focuses on the multiple services and purposes that are derived from natural ecosystems. Integration means looking for mutual services across the "traditional" division of production and environment. This is what we have learnt since the Rio Summit: that agriculture and the environment must be synergistic. In our livestock programmes, for example, we look for interdependencies between livestock keepers and wildlife reserves. Sustainable management plans for livestock and wildlife in the buffer zones are accompanied by ways for livestock keepers to share in the revenues of tourism as a compensation for their sound management services, and by establishing direct market linkages with the tourism industry for local livestock products. Also, agriculturalists and livestock keepers may cooperate in provision of water delivery through wells and boreholes operated and maintained by the former.
FAO also looks at multi-service and multi-purpose natural resources management systems in collaboration with IWMI and IUCN. Inland wetlands in Africa represent rich ecosystems that can perform a multitude of services: promoting productive livelihoods through the cultivation of rice, inland fisheries, fibre and other resources, and pasture; and environmental services in conservation of biodiversity and wildlife, and water regulation and purification. These services need to be optimized within the limits of the carrying capacity of the ecosystem. The multiple users - agriculturalists, pastoralists, environmentalists and fishermen - must be brought together in a common management arrangement. Unfortunately, reality is often such that at the policy level the specific problems and opportunities of wetlands are either ignored or wetlands are designated as protected areas only. As farmers are already present in the wetlands, generally without the proper management arrangements, we lose the opportunity to reconcile the needs for food and ecosystems. Coherency in our cross-sectoral policies is essential to support collaboration among stakeholders.
The need for coherence applies at national level, between ministries of agriculture and environment, water and natural resources, but also in donor policy, and not least between the international institutions, the Conventions, and UNEP and FAO for example. Similarly, at national level, cross-sectoral policies need to become visible in national plans, especially in the PRSPs, where thus far environment and agriculture are often poorly reflected.

Finally, you may be aware that FAO's member states have recently adopted the principles on the Right to Food. I consider the "theme" water for food and ecosystems of this conference a concrete step towards the realisation of the Right to Food. In fact, the right to water for food and ecosystems may become an integral part of the Right to Food.
FAO is very pleased to cooperate with all its partners in this important conference, and I would like to pay tribute to the Ethiopian government who has taken such an active role in the preparation and leading of this conference, and the African Union for its collaboration. I also would like to thank the Netherlands government for its generous contribution.
Ladies and gentlemen, I wish you all a fruitful exchange of experiences. Please remember the slogan of this meeting: "Make it Happen!"