Water and food security are intimately connected. Many of the over 800 million people in the world who still go hungry live in water-scarce regions. When FAO launched its Special Programme for Food Security in 1994, it was well aware that limited access to water was often a major constraint to increasing food production.
A key question for the future is whether water shortage will act as a serious brake on food production during the coming decades. Many people profess to know the answer: they argue that the world's renewable water supply is fixed and cannot be increased; consequently, per capita water resources dwindle in direct relation to population growth and rising aspirations; furthermore, they charge, much of the world's water is recklessly squandered on wasteful irrigation schemes, many of which rely on unsustainably high rates of withdrawal from underground water resources.
Publications that are optimistic about the future of the world's water resources are thus about as rare as thunderstorms in the desert. This publication, while perhaps not the equivalent of a desert thunderstorm, could be compared to a gentle rain (often preferable, in agricultural terms). Its key message is this: over the next 30 years we can increase the effective irrigated area in developing countries by 34 percent and we will need only 14 percent more water to do so.
How is this possible?
There are two explanations. One is that the changing food habits of people in some developing countries are helping to increase the water efficiency with which crops are grown. Rice, for example, is a very water-intensive crop, using about twice as much water per hectare as wheat. When people eat less rice and more wheat, less irrigation water is needed. The effect of this trend will be small but noticeable by the year 2030.
More importantly, we believe that the efficiency with which irrigation water is used can be increased over the coming 30 years - from an average 38 percent to about 42 percent. An FAO analysis of 93 selected developing countries shows their water abstraction for agriculture in 1998 was about 2128 km3 a year. If irrigation efficiency can be increased to 42 percent - and we believe that with concerted efforts, using the technology currently available, this can be achieved - we calculate that only 2 420 km3 of water will need to be abstracted in 2030 to irrigate a net harvested area more than one-third larger than it is today.
While this conclusion is globally optimistic, we should not forget that water is already in very short supply in several countries, and that many other countries also suffer locally from severe shortages. These countries and these regions will need special attention in the years to come, and they will need to increase their irrigation efficiencies by much more than just 4 percent.
Increasing irrigation efficiency - getting more crop per drop - must thus become one of our top priorities. FAO intends to do all it can to help countries along this path, a path that leads to both increased water security and improved food security.