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Moving closer to a global plan of action for water

International meeting to prepare for next World Water Forum

Photo: ©FAO/Roberto Faidutti
Agriculture is by far the biggest water user.

21 January 2009, Rome - Delegates from more than 60 countries are meeting in Rome (21-23 January 2009) to continue negotiations on a global plan of action for adapting to global changes that affect how countries manage freshwater resources.

The meeting is part of preparations for the 5th World Water Forum, to be held in Istanbul, Turkey, 16-22 March 2009. The World Water Forum is the largest international event in the field of water. The Rome gathering is the third in a series of high-level meetings to prepare for the ministerial conference on water that will be part of the World Water Forum.

Under threat

"Water today is under threat from a variety of sources. Human beings rely on water to survive, yet, often people are water's worst enemy", said Ger Bergkamp, Director-General of the World Water Council, the international organization that stages the triennial World Water Forum.

"With population increasing and cities expanding, more pressure will be placed on water supply", Bergkamp added. Industrial development will require more water, and as countries look to increase their energy supply, more water will be diverted to generate hydro-electricity. The pollution of lakes, rivers and underground reservoirs reduces the supply of clean water. Climate change adds another variable to the already unstable equation.

Competing for water

"Agriculture accounts for around 90 percent of the consumption of the freshwater and is by far the biggest water user. Generally, it takes between 2 000 to 5 000 litres of water to grow enough food for one person per day," said Alexander Müller, FAO Assistant Director-General, Natural Resources Management and Environment Department.

"World population will grow from around 6.5 billion today to over 9 billion in 2050. This poses a major challenge for world agriculture: to produce more food to feed a growing world population while using limited water resources more efficiently. The competition for scarce water resources will increase in future, as the demand for water from industry and private households will rise. Feeding the world in a sustainable way, also responding to growing climate change threats, requires new concepts and a strong political will to solve the world's growing water problems," Müller added.

Because agriculture consumes such a large proportion of freshwater, increasing water productivity in agriculture is likely to free significant amounts of water for other uses. If agricultural yields can be maintained with a one percent decline in water consumed, this would translate into a 10 percent increase in water availability for other sectors.

Better water management

"We have to radically rethink our ideas about the relationship between food, water and the environment if we are to deal with water scarcity and achieve the Millennium Development Goals targets," said Pasquale Steduto, Chief of FAO's Water Development and Management Unit and Chair of UN-Water, the UN inter-agency mechanism fostering coordination of UN water initiatives.

"The World Water Forum, by bringing together government officials from different sectors, civil society, private sector, consumer organizations and universities, presents a tremendous opportunity to ensure that the international agenda on water management reflects this new way of thinking."

Coming up with a coherent international strategy for water management is urgent.

During the recent food price crisis, many countries experienced severe droughts that affected food production. Climate change scenarios suggest droughts will become more frequent in many areas already coping with water scarcity. Major river basins, including important food producing areas around the Colorado River in the United States, the Indus River in southern Asia, the Yellow River in China, the Jordan River in the Middle East, the Nile Delta in Africa and the Murray Darling River in Australia, are 'closed', with no possibility of using more water.

"The recent food crisis has caused world leaders refocus their attention on the global food system and the issue of hunger. At this meeting we hope to impress upon world leaders that sustainable water management is inextricably connected to food security," Steduto said.

Plan of action 

Senior officials attending the meeting in Rome are expected to conclude negotiations on a global action plan, to be finalized and approved by the Ministerial Conference at the World Water Forum in Istanbul.

"FAO is extremely pleased to cooperate with the World Water Council in this process" said Steduto. "By fully integrating agriculture into the global policy debate on water, we can address a wide range of development issues, including food security, poverty reduction, environmental sustainability, clean energy and rural and urban sanitation," noted Steduto.

The World Water Forum in Istanbul will provide input into other international negotiations in the Group of Eight (G8), the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).