Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific

Hiroyuki Konuma

FAO Regional Representative for Asia-Pacific

He Changchui
Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Asia and the Pacific
delivered at the


Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre, Bangkok
17-25 November 2004

Ladies and gentlemen,

The theme of this workshop ‘Water resources management for Poverty Alleviation’ cuts across the 6 programme areas which my office has recently identified in the regional strategic framework for Asia and the Pacific. I will therefore articulate my intervention around these six axes.

1. Agriculture restructuring under changing market and trade conditions

The region is undergoing rapid socio-economic, geo-political and even cultural transformation, stimulated by the structural adjustment and macro-economic stabilization initiated in the 80s, the WTO agreements, globalization and market liberalization. The external influences, internal dynamics (in and of itself also affected by global events), as well as the nature of public instruments for governing the economy and the agriculture sector are also undergoing rapid changes. In the face of such rapid and significant changes, conventional (old, though tried and tested) strategies of the past may no longer suffice to address persistent pockets of poverty, inequity and food insecurity. There is a need for fresh perspective taking into account the ongoing transformation of the economies of the region.

It is important to note that while economic growth including in the agricultural sector have greatly contributed to alleviating poverty in the region, benefits have not been spread equitably. New and more intensive production systems, including in the livestock and agro-processing sectors, have severely degraded land and water resources and the ecosystems they support and have not always resulted in net gains for rural populations compared with their traditional livelihood systems.

Further economic integration at both regional, Greater Mekong Region (GMR) and international levels should be designed so that it does not result in further marginalization of rural populations and destruction of the ecosystems, and provides opportunities to draw greater benefits from the sustainable use of the rich bio-diversity that blesses the region.

2. Decentralizing governance in support of sustainable development

This will certainly be a key issue in our discussion today. Decentralizing governance will allow the development of sustainable growth strategies that are more respectful of and build on the social, natural and cultural diversity of the region. Although main national policy and strategy documents of countries in the region mention decentralization or participation of rural populations, much remains to be done to put these policies into practice and to involve local populations in substantive and important policies and development programmes and projects.

At the same time, it must be recognized that water resources cannot be managed for the benefit of riparian populations only, even if their interests must be protected. And national governments, as well as the Mekong River Commission at the regional level, still have a key role to play to ensure that local decisions and strategies are taken in the respect of national and regional public goods and solidarity. An eco-system approach should recognize all stakeholders in the river basin.

3. Reducing vulnerability to disasters

The present drought in the Northeast of Thailand is a reminder that vulnerability to drought is still a major factor of poverty in the region. Greater efforts need to be made to secure people’s basic water needs, including by development of irrigation in the dry season. Also floods remain an important issue. FAO welcomes and supports the recently developed flood strategies of the Mekong River Commission, and the Asian Development Bank. However, I would like to emphasize the need for informed consent of the rural populations in flood-prone areas as a pre-requisite for the implementation of these strategies. Is the governance framework, in particular the community-based participatory approach in place already?

4. Promoting effective and equitable management, conservation and sustainable use of natural resources

Sustainable management of watersheds is of course a key to reducing vulnerability to disasters and I will not raise many eyebrows by stating that promoting effective and equitable management, conservation and sustainable use of natural resources is a key factor in water and poverty alleviation. Enabling local communities to develop natural resources management strategies, to derive benefits from sustainable forest management systems and non-wood forest products will contribute to both enhancing their livelihoods and protecting water resources.

We resolutely support the transition towards Integrated Water Resources Management as a necessary condition for empowering rural communities to unlock the productivity of the agricultural sector, and facilitating the recognition of the contribution of aquatic resources to local and national food and nutrition security and economy and of the multiple roles of agricultural water use.

There is still considerable potential for water harvesting and irrigation development in the region, respectful of the environment. However, economic, social and environmental performance of irrigation needs to be substantially improved for agriculture to negotiate access to water resources in the future, as agriculture alone accounts for 80percent of fresh water withdrawal in the region. The success of irrigation reforms will be assessed by the substance of their achievements, in providing farmers with the service they need, lifting their incomes and safeguarding the aquatic eco-systems. Stable but flexible land and water rights are needed both for sustainable management of the resource and to allow farmers to take advantage of market opportunities.

5. Strengthening biosecurity for food security and agricultural trade

Production systems in the GMR are rapidly evolving in response to increasing demand for food and agricultural products as well as to regional integration and globalization. Modern technology, while assisting increased production and productivities, affects natural resources, the environment, biodiversity and food quality, and also raises significant concerns related to biosecurity in the region.

Biosecurity is defined as: management of all biological and environmental risks associated with food and agriculture, including forestry and fisheries. It covers issues related to biosafety, food safety and plant as well as animal health such as recent outbreaks of Avian Influenza in the region. A variety of interrelated biosecurity issues in the GMR remain inadequately understood or addressed. Responsibility for these issues is scattered among different sectors, from agriculture, to health, the environment, forestry, fisheries, livestock, trade and industry. A cohesive national approach and coordinated regional mechanism are required to tackle these issues.

Enabling populations of the Mekong and its watershed in deriving more value from the rich diversity of the region should be a key strategy for poverty alleviation. In this respect, FAO urges the governments of the region to ratify the international conventions on biodiversity and is willing to provide assistance in this area.

6. Alleviating poverty in rice-based livelihood systems

Rice remains a powerful symbol of the Mekong, an important component of the livelihood of its populations, a strategic crop for the countries’ balance sheets and a contentious issue in trade negotiations. But rice farmers remain poorer than the rest of the population, even if their success in producing rice cheaply has greatly contributed to alleviating hunger of the population at large. The rice sector is at cross-roads, the issue is very complex and this is why my office considers this as a priority programme area for the future.

Meanwhile, our knowledge base is sufficient to start managing rice-based systems not just for rice, but for the multiple roles and benefits that they provide, for the local populations, for the rice-fish systems and other biodiversity that they support and, in the river basin, for their hydrological functions which are the same as wetlands’.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Water and poverty are intricately linked in the Mekong region. But water resources and the biodiversity it support are also a considerable asset, which, if managed appropriately, can both contribute to alleviating poverty, enhancing food security and supporting socio-economic development in the region. Tensions and conflicts on water are becoming more acute and point to issues of governance of natural and water resources at local, national and regional level and international levels, which I have no doubt will be the focus of your discussions today. I hope that through your deliberations you will be able to make useful and practical recommendations for the future. This is a priority area for FAO and we are willing to intensify our activities in the region in support of the governments, local communities, with the Mekong River Commission and other partners. Resources and political will are crucially needed. However, I want to highlight through my intervention that this will not be sufficient. Action in many other areas of policy and development will be needed, and I hope that your discussions will also contribute to analyzing these.

Ladies and gentlemen, Thank you for your attention.