Nearly 1 000 million people currently live in what is defined as absolute poverty, with incomes of less than US$1 a day.
Most of these suffer from chronic hunger. In the developing countries, more than one child in four is underweight - and in the poorest of these countries, every other child is underweight. Such children are at great risk to disease, and many of them never become adults: the underlying cause of more than half of all child deaths in developing countries is malnutrition. Those that do survive to adulthood face a future that is likely to be scarred by hunger, homelessness, illiteracy and unemployment.
Hunger is not a natural condition: it is produced by human action (or lack of it) and, in a world that can produce more than enough food for everyone, its root cause is poverty. Remarkably, in the early 1990s nearly 80 percent of all malnourished children lived in developing countries that produced food surpluses.
Although the number of people going hungry has declined by about 5 percent since the early 1990s, it is estimated that almost 800 million still go hungry in the developing countries and some 30 million in other countries. As populations increase and more people move from rural to urban areas, the task of reducing hunger will become even more difficult than it is today.
Percentage of population undernourished (1997-1999)
The key issue is to increase food security by ensuring that all households have real access to adequate food for all their members and do not risk losing such access. This means not only that the food must be available but also that people can afford to buy it. There are several ways of increasing food security: increasing local food production and productivity, increasing food imports on a regular and assured basis, providing more jobs and increased incomes for those who are too poor to buy the food they need, and improving food distribution systems.
Food self-sufficiency, achieved by meeting all food needs through domestic supplies, used to be a common national policy objective. It had the advantages of saving foreign exchange for the purchase of other commodities that could not be locally produced and of insulating countries from the vagaries of international trade and uncontrollable fluctuations in agricultural commodity prices. It also ensured that sufficient food was always available to feed local populations. A number of political factors - notably a sense of national insecurity (as in the Near East) - also militated against extensive dependence on food imports in some water-short countries.
In practice, there were many drawbacks. Where food self-sufficiency was difficult to achieve, climatic variations such as storms, floods and droughts could quickly make nations dependent on either food aid or food imports. In arid countries, the price for food self-sufficiency was also high in that a high proportion of available water and land resources had to be devoted to irrigation, depriving the domestic and industrial sectors of the relatively small volumes of water they needed to flourish. Some countries accumulated substantial water deficits as a result of mining underground aquifers for water with which to produce their own cereals.
Today, the trend is away from food self-sufficiency to partial reliance of food imports. One of the main driving forces to this change is water scarcity, caused by rapidly growing populations which have reduced per capita water and land availability. At the same time, there have been increasing municipal demands on limited water resources. Some countries have also found that there are higher returns on labour in industries other than agriculture - in short, that it is easier and more profitable to earn foreign exchange to buy food imports than it is to grow water-hungry agricultural crops.
Importing food is equivalent to importing water in a condensed form, sometimes called `virtual water'. In a recent survey of irrigation and water resources in the Near East, FAO estimated that 86.5 km3 of water would be needed to grow the food equivalent to net food imports to the region in 1994 - a figure that is comparable to the total annual flow of the Nile at Aswan.
It makes obvious sense for water-scarce countries to import basic foods such as cereals from water-surplus areas and use their own limited water resources to grow high value crops for export - such as cut flowers, strawberries and other fruit. The foreign exchange thus earned can then be used to buy cereal imports.
Countries facing food insecurity and water stress, however, need to be assured that they can have fair and secure trade with water-abundant nations. Secure basic food trade conditions for water-poor countries should become a priority for the World Trade Organization.
Some countries that are not food self-sufficient, however, cannot export enough to earn the foreign exchange needed to purchase the food imports they need. Similarly, individuals may not have the cash to purchase food for themselves and their families, even though food is available in the market. This highlights the continuing need for agriculturally-based rural development programmes in such areas as sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Such programmes need to be aimed simultaneously at increasing productivity, reducing poverty and improving gender equity - three of the keys to improving food security.
FAO's Special Programme for Food Security
FAO launched its Special Programme for Food Security (SPFS) in 1994. Focusing on low-income, food-deficit countries, SPFS was endorsed during the World Food Summit in 1996. The main objective is to help countries to improve their national food security - through rapid increases in productivity and food production, and by reducing year-to-year variability in production - on an economically and environmentally sustainable basis. By working with farmers and other stakeholders to identify and resolve constraints to food production and to demonstrate ways of increasing production, the SPFS opens the way to improved productivity and access to food. The Programme is currently operational in 55 countries and under formulation in 25 others.
In drought-prone areas, limited access to water is often a major constraint to improving food production, making small-scale irrigation, water harvesting and water development technologies top priorities for the SPFS.
Food security also depends on maximizing both the food and the number of jobs produced for every drop of water used - whether in irrigated or rainfed agriculture. Irrigated agriculture has played a significant role in the increase of food production in recent decades but its absolute contribution is still lower than that of rainfed agriculture. Of the 1500 million hectares of global cropland, only about 250 million hectares (17 percent) are irrigated. However, this 17 percent provides about 40 percent of world food production; the remaining 60 percent comes from rainfed agriculture. In water-scarce tropical regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, rainfed agriculture is used on more than 95 percent of cropland, and will remain the dominating source of food for growing populations.