Nineteenth Session

Rome, 13-16 April 2005


Process and Main Features

1. Agriculture and natural ecosystems are interrelated sectors, but they are also increasingly competing for often scarce water resources. Reconciling the water needs of the two sectors is essential to ensure food production and safeguard natural resources. Several internationally agreed commitments, such as those made by for instance the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), the World Food Summit, the World Food Summit: five years later and the World Water Fora, recognize the importance of sustainable use of water resources. What is needed now is the implementation of these commitments and the identification of good management practices and practical lessons for an integrated approach to water for food and ecosystems. This was the focus of the International Conference on Water for Food and Ecosystems, which was organized jointly by FAO and the Government of the Netherlands and held in The Hague from 31 January to 5 February 2005. The salient features of the Conference and its outcome are presented to the Committee on Agriculture in this paper. Similar information will be presented to the Commission on Sustainable Development at its Thirteenth Session in April 2005 as well as to the fourth World Water Forum in Mexico in March 2006.

2. The Conference on Water for Food and Ecosystems was attended by 26 Ministers and more than 600 delegates from 140 countries, as well as some 40 international organizations, non-governmental organizations and private sector organizations. It brought together high-level policy makers from different sectors and encouraged this broad group of participants to implement a comprehensive list of proposals at local and national levels, and the forging of national and international partnerships in water for food and ecosystems. In this way, the Conference directly contributed to the implementation of international water-related policies and programmes adopted by the WSSD, FAO, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

3. The Conference in The Hague was preceded by an African Pre-Conference in Addis Ababa (4-6 November 2004), organized with the government of Ethiopia and the African Union, and an electronic discussion forum in December 2004. The main aim of the Pre-Conference was to deliver a strong African message to the international Conference in The Hague. Both Conferences, as well as the e-forum, focused on the following three themes:

4. The Conference in The Hague was organized in a participatory fashion, with one working group for each of the three themes. This process was fed by the outcomes of the African Pre-Conference and the e-forum. Towards the end of the Conference, a ministerial round table was held, where ministers committed themselves to accelerating the pace of implementation of international commitments, stressing the importance of integrating, cooperating and investing in water for food and ecosystems. The Conference resulted in the formulation of specific challenges, good practices to address those challenges and specific actions to implement these good practices1.

Key Outcomes

5. The Conference agreed upon the importance of awareness raising, at various levels, about the linkages between water, food and ecosystems. It also stressed the need to develop more in-depth knowledge of the causal links between water, food and ecosystems. Importance was also underlined of making the available knowledge accessible to a wider group of actors, and of feeding it into decision and policy making processes so as to lead to better informed decisions. In this regard, the possibility of establishing a Clearing House Mechanism for water for food and ecosystems was raised.

6. There was agreement on the need to move towards a true valuation of water through a mechanism that goes beyond its economic value to include social, equity and environmental values. A general process was identified to move towards managing water resources in ways that reflect their multiple values. This process consists of three general steps –awareness raising, valuing water resources and using economic mechanisms– that can be adopted by countries as they see fit, depending on their current situation and needs. Although the last step maybe more difficult to fully implement, there was a general agreement on the need to put a “price tag” on water, for instance through payment for environmental services, water charges and so on. However, in doing so, issues of equity and access by the poor and smallholders have to be carefully considered, and the use of participatory valuation approaches, involving stakeholders throughout the process, will be key.

7. Another important outcome of the Conference was the agreement on the need for harmonization of national policies and institutions, adequate decentralization measures and appropriate legislation at various levels. An equitable water use should be achieved between agriculture and ecosystems to ensure an adequate access to water, in particular for the poor. Capacity building and building public-private partnerships were identified as important elements in improving coordinated management of water for food and ecosystems at the basin and community levels.

8. In the Conference report, specific actions were identified to enable an integrated management of water for food and ecosystems. Implementation of these actions by the countries and organizations present at the Conference would contribute towards achieving the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), especially MDGs 1, 7, and 8. At the same time, it is to be noted that the MDGs do not directly address food production and do not cater to the specific needs of managing water for food and ecosystems in an integrated fashion: water is discussed mainly in the context of drinking water and sanitation, and the complex interrelationships between water, food and ecosystems are not addressed.


9. Implementing the agreements reached during the Conference requires actions from all participating countries and organizations. FAO, as one of the Conference’s co-organizers, will endeavour to assist countries in this process. FAO will play a key role through its normative work to support the formulation of policy and methodology development at the national level; to address issues of valuation of water resources and the need for national capacity building; to strengthen its work on transboundary water management and field work at watershed level; to raise awareness about water scarcity (with regard to both quantity and quality of water resources); to work towards a participatory method for water valuation; and to enhance its already extensive database system by including best practices. However, successful implementation of the outcome of the Conference will also require active support from FAO’s Members.

10. Although the Conference report has a non-binding status, its adoption by the Conference participants makes the implementation of the actions in the report a joint responsibility of all concerned: FAO, participating countries, NGOs and international organizations. An important task for the participating countries is to raise the awareness about the importance of water for food and ecosystems and their interrelationships. This means raising this issue to the highest political attention nationally, informing the public at large and bringing this issue forward in international fora. Furthermore, the challenge for FAO’s Members is to formulate national water for food and ecosystems action plans; to create the enabling institutional environment to implement Conference commitments; and to incorporate these into national policies and strategies for the water sector as well as for other relevant sectors.


1 Please see the Conference website for further information.