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Success in hunger fight hinges on better use of water

On World Water Day, UN community says better management of finite water resources is key to feeding the world

Photo: ©FAO/Ami Vitale
Lack of water limits the ability of farmers to produce enough food to eat or earn a living.

22 March 2012, Rome - UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today said that producing enough food to feed the world's rapidly growing population will require the international community to ensure the sustainable use of the world's "most critical finite resource," water.

"Unless we increase our capacity to use water wisely in agriculture, we will fail to end hunger and we will open the door to a range of other ills, including drought, famine and political instability," warned Ban in a statement read at the start of World Water Day 2012 ceremonies taking place at FAO.

In many parts of the world, water scarcity is increasing and rates of growth in agricultural production have been slowing, he noted. At the same time, climate change is exacerbating risk and unpredictability for farmers, "especially for poor farmers in low-income countries who are the most vulnerable and the least able to adapt," he said.

Guaranteeing sustainable food and water security for all will require transferring appropriate water technologies, empowering small food producers and conserving essential ecosystem services, the UN chief said. He also called for policies that promote water rights for all, stronger regulatory capacity and gender equality. 

"Water will play a central role in creating the future we want," concluded Ban. "At the upcoming Rio+20 Earth Summit, the international community will need to connect the dots between water security and food and nutrition security in the context of a green economy."

Each March 22, the UN-Water partnership of 28 different UN organizations celebrates World Water Day as a way to focus public attention on various water-related issues and the need to sustainably manage freshwater resources.

FAO is the lead UN agency for observances of the Day this year, which has the theme "Water and food security". The UN Food and Agriculture Organization is holding a day-long series of talks and discussions by international water experts at its Rome headquarters.  (Watch the event live online here).

Water for the future

During his own remarks, FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva said: "Twenty years ago, the first Rio Earth Summit highlighted the vital importance of sound water management in building a sustainable, food-secure future for the planet. While many countries have made great strides in improving their management of water resources since, much more needs to be done.

"We must meet the agricultural demand in a way that conserves water and other natural resources, ranging from the sustainable intensification of agriculture capable of producing the food the world needs while using water more intelligently to changing the way we eat, reducing losses, waste and promoting healthier diets,," he added.

Doing so will require investments in people, infrastructure, education and awareness building, and finding incentives for small farmers to adopt best practices and strengthening their capacity to improve their productivity, according to Graziano da Silva.

Boosting farmers' resilience against climate change, improving water governance, and establishing institutions to improve national and regional water management are also priority areas, he said.

Food and water waste

FAO estimates that 1.3 billion tonnes of food are wasted each year. A 50 percent reduction of food losses and waste at the global level would save 1 350 km3 of water annually, according to FAO. By way of comparison, the mean annual rainfall in Spain is 350 km3, the storage capacity of Lake Nasser in Egypt and Sudan is nearly 85 km3, and the water that passes the city of Bonn on the Rhine River in the span of a year adds up to around 60 km3.

Agriculture and water security interconnected

Today some 1.6 billion people live in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity and by 2025 two-thirds of the world's population could be living under water stressed conditions.

One primary reason for this is the necessary use of water for food production. The average human drinks 2 to 4 litres of water every day, but it takes 2 000 to 5 000 litres of water to produce one person's daily food.

Indeed, agriculture is responsible for 70 percent of all freshwater and groundwater withdrawals worldwide.

Yet the reason for this large water footprint is clear: irrigating, farmers can produce more food. Irrigated agriculture accounts for only 20 percent of the Earth's cultivated land area, but produces 40 percent of its food.