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On the occasion of the third World Water Forum (WWF-3), being held in Kyoto, Japan, from 16 to 23 March 2003, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) presented an overview of the priority issues facing the agricultural decision-makers of the world in the field of agricultural water development and their implications for the management of water resources in a wider context. FAO has placed its participation in the WWF-3 debates in Kyoto under the motto “unlocking the water potential of agriculture”. Indeed, all the statistical evidence confirms agriculture as the key sector for water management both now and in the coming decades. Nevertheless, the rural water development sector is currently failing to achieve priority compared with other competing sectors in international fora. At present, rural water promoters lack a valid strategy and marketing presentation to keep the focus on the issues. Strong, new arguments are needed in order to bring rural water back ‘on line’:

(1) The productive use of water for agricultural production and rural development will need to improve continuously in order to meet targets for food production, economic growth and the environment. This will require the progressive modernization of agricultural water management in a way that makes it both much more demand responsive and also better adapted to local climate, environmental and socio-economic conditions.

(2) Agricultural water management will be key to maintaining food security and income generation for the rural poor. However, the equitable management of local water resources can only be achieved through much greater involvement of rural communities and individual farmers.

(3) Sustaining these productivity and equity objectives can only be achieved through higher quality investment in the agriculture sector. Therefore, investment in agricultural water management will need to become much more strategic in improving: (i) the management of existing water infrastructure; (ii) the engagement of water users; and (iii) the use of innovative agricultural practices.

In the future, agriculture will have to respond to changing patterns of food demand and contribute to the alleviation of food insecurity and poverty among marginalized communities. In so doing, agriculture will have to compete for scarce water with other users, while reducing pressure on the environment. Water will be the key agent in the drive to raise and sustain agricultural production in order to meet these multiple demands. Therefore, agriculture policies and investments will need to become much more strategic. They will have to unlock the potential of agricultural water management practices to raise productivity, spread equitable access to water and conserve the natural productivity of the water resource base.

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