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Global community steps up to water scarcity challenge

First gathering of Global Framework on Water Scarcity in Agriculture agrees  on the Rome Statement to drive action, safeguard food production

Rome, 20 April 2017 – The value we place on resources is often linked to their rarity as much as their beauty or usefulness – gold and diamonds being some examples. However, there is a far more precious resource that many of us have considered infinite in its abundance for too long: water.

Water is fundamental to all life, yet human development is bringing supplies to crisis point. Water scarcity affects over 40 per cent of the planet’s population. By 2025, two-thirds of us may face water stress, while 1.8 billion people will live with ‘absolute’ water scarcity.

Little wonder, then, that in 2016, the World Economic Forum put water crises top of its annual ranking of threats facing the planet. Even the movie industry is taking note, making control of lucrative water supplies the nefarious ploy of the villain in the James Bond outing, Quantum of Solace.

The good news is that the global community is taking the problem seriously. This week, the Global Framework on Water Scarcity – which was born at the United Nations Climate Conference (COP22) in Morocco late last year – brought together the top minds in water and agriculture at the HQ of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome to kick-start global action.

“Water scarcity threatens food security and nutrition, can lead to conflicts over use, compromises food production, and jeopardizes livelihoods and our ecosystems,” said Maria Helena Semedo, Deputy Director-General of FAO, at the meeting. “It can significantly menace human, plant and animal health and trigger mass migrations. No individual organization or country can deal with this challenge alone.”

There are multiple reasons for water scarcity. Driven by economic development and growing populations, water use grew twice as fast as the world’s population last century. But poor water governance and lack of investment have also contributed to a situation where the supplies we do have are not reaching those who need them.

Then there is the spectre of climate change, which will further compromise water availability. For every 1°C rise in global temperature, it is expected that 500 million people will be exposed to a 20 percent decrease in renewable water resources.

The framework’s goal is to help the vulnerable agricultural sector to adapt. Irrigated agriculture provides 40 percent of global crops, while up to 84 percent of the economic impact of drought falls on the sector. Yet agriculture must become more productive: the world must produce 50 percent more food by 2050 to support a population that will have grown by 2 billion. 

“We have to live with the scarcity,” said Eduardo Mansur, Director, Land and Water Division, FAO. “We need plants and animals that will adapt to the conditions of scarcity and climate variability. We need to produce more food with less water. 

“The Global Framework brings together key players from across the globe to design and implement integrated strategies to do just that, and prevent water scarcity from setting back our ambitious vision of a future of peace and plenty for all.”

Rome Statement: first step in driving change

The first meeting of the partners resulted in the Rome Statement as a first step towards action that will help reduce water demand, protect water quality, adapt agriculture to climate change, help conserve the natural resource base and maintain ecosystem services. Many projects are in the pipeline in these areas.

One key element is improving water use efficiency in agriculture, an area in which there is plenty of room for improvement.

“A lot of countries are very inefficient in water use in agriculture,” said Job Kleijn, Senior Officer (Water), Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Netherlands. “In all our programmes, in all our funding for international agencies and partner countries, we expect a 25 percent increase in water efficiency.” 

For Torkil Jønch Clausen – Governor, World Water Council, and Senior Adviser to the Global Water Partnership – tackling food waste and loss will also make a massive difference, both in terms of using less water and feeding the growing population. 

“Increased production must be combined with reductions in losses and waste from field to fork,” said Clausen, who was elected Chair of a 14-member Interim Steering Committee at the meeting. “As long as 30-40 percent of all food produced is lost or wasted, the low-hanging fruit in addressing water scarcity is to reduce losses and wastes throughout the chain.”

FAO research found that the food which is produced but not eaten, 1.3 billion tonnes each year, guzzles up a volume of water equivalent to the annual flow of Russia's Volga River. 

As agriculture also accounts for 70 percent of freshwater withdrawals, actions to produce more with less water and reduce losses in the sector have wider benefits. Reshaping agriculture can help meet the Paris climate commitments and the Sustainable Development Goals, in particular SDG 2 (zero hunger), SDG 6 (access to clean water and sanitation), SDG 12 (sustainable consumption), SDG 13 (climate action), and SDG 15 (life on land).

Working together for a common goal

To get the job done, actions and strategies must address water scarcity, agricultural production, energy, food security and climate change in an integrated manner that includes good governance. For those involved, the framework is the best way to go about it.

“We’re very excited about the framework, as there isn’t one global body that is trying to pull everybody together,” said Sara Walker, Lead, Food and Water Issues, World Resources Institute. “I’m very excited about the framework elevating this topic on the international stage and trying to push for policy changes with regard to water governance.” 

The final piece of the puzzle is the private sector. Businesses are already aware of the potential hits to their bottom lines – in 2016, the world’s largest companies reported $14 billion dollars in losses due to water-related issues. But they need to be brought into the fold to ensure everyone is working together.

“There are many expert organizations doing fantastic work in the space of water scarcity in agriculture, and there are many private sector companies looking into how to become more water efficient,” said Sara Traubel, Water Manager at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. “The framework can help join these forces … in order to amplify the collective impact we can have." 

To find out how to join or support the Framework, send a message to water-scarcity@fao.org

The Rome Statement on Water Scarcity in Agriculture is a non-binding text.