Re: Water and food security - E-consultation to set the track of the study

Petra Wolter FAO, Italy

Contribution from the Watershed Management and Mountains Team, Forestry Department, FAO HQ

Thank you for providing the opportunity to contribute to this very important discussion.  

One aspect which is not adequately reflected in the study outline is the need to protect the world’s freshwater resources for which it is proposed to include a separate chapter at the beginning, before dealing with water use, governance and management aspects. Protection of increasingly scarce surface and ground water resources will be of vital importance if we are to cope with growing demands of a rising world population and new challenges stemming from climate change. 

With a substantial increase in the demand for food and energy, mobilization of water resources for agriculture and food production will be critically important but there is a need to balance short-term productivity gains in agriculture with the long-term role that water flows provide for maintaining sustainable ecosystem services in landscapes and serving multiple benefits to human well-being. The quantity, timing and quality of water flows in landscapes must be sustained to meet the increasingly competing demands and to balance between a wide range of water uses and users. 

Ecosystems such as mountains, forests and wetlands provide crucial water-related services, and the conservation and protection of these ecosystems is of global importance. 

A high proportion of the fresh water required for domestic, agricultural, industrial and ecological purposes comes from forested areas in mountain areas. Mountains, covering 27% of the Earth’s land area, provide on average 60-80% of the word’s freshwater resources while this rate can rise up to 95 % in semi-arid and arid regions. In order to conserve and protect the increasingly scarce surface water resources, both in terms of quantity and quality, increased attention is required for the wise and integrated management of mountain areas.

Wetlands can store excess water during the wet season and release it slowly as water levels fall in the dry season. High altitude wetlands such as glacial lakes, marshes, wet grasslands and peat lands support unique ecosystems and services that sustain the livelihoods of people. They store large quantities of water from rain and glacial melt, feed aquifers, trap sediments and recycle nutrients, enhancing both the quantity and quality of water supplied throughout the year. In arid zones wetlands are vital sources of water in otherwise uninhabitable landscapes. As sources of water, food and fibre, they are critically important life-support systems for the survival of people. They help provide regular water supplies and fertile soils, improve water quality, recharge underground aquifers and lessen the impact of seasonal floods. Inland marshes and vernal pools store water in areas where there are no permanent rivers or streams.

Forests and forested watersheds are particularly important for the provision of freshwater resources. The role of trees and forests in the hydrological cycle by maintaining high water quality, influencing the amount of water available and regulating stream flow and groundwater recharge is more and more being recognized, ultimately contributing to food security and sustainable development.

More attention should be given to forest protection and forest management for the provision of clean water, and one way to achieve this is by increasing areas under forest cover specifically for the protection of soil and water. According to FRA 2010, only eight percent of the world’s forests have soil and water conservation as their primary objective. 

Watershed management can be a suitable approach to combine natural resources management, agricultural production and livelihoods improvement for the sustainable development of rural landscapes. Watershed management contributes to the regulation of surface water flows, the reduction of sediment load in river systems and the maintenance of water quality, all indispensable characteristics of surface water systems for successful and sustainable food production.

The International Year of Family Farming 2014 presents an opportunity to focus attention on the merits and challenges of family farming including in mountain areas. The study could therefore make specific reference to the most vulnerable and food insecure small-scale producers who may depend on access to water for their survival and who could benefit tremendously from targeted investments in small-scale water harvesting and water storage as well as low-cost micro-irrigation systems. Fostering local level solutions including the safeguarding of indigenous knowledge and local agro-biodiversity may contribute significantly to a more rational water use and improved agricultural water productivity.


FAO (2006) The new generation of watershed management programmes and projects. FAO Forestry Paper No. 150. Rome

FAO (2008) Forests and water. FAO Forestry Paper No. 155. Rome

FAO (2010) Global Forest Resources Assessment 2010. FAO Forestry Paper No. 163. Rome

Keys, P., Barron, J., and Lannerstad, M. (2012) Releasing the Pressure: Water Resource Efficiencies and Gains for Ecosystem Services. Nairobi: United Nations Environment Programme; Stockholm: Stockholm Environment Institute