Coping with water scarcity
Q&A with FAO Director-General Dr Jacques Diouf
The theme for this year’s World Water Day is Coping with Water Scarcity. In this interview, Dr Jacques Diouf, Director-General of FAO, the coordinating agency within the UN system for World Water Day this year, addresses the issue.
How serious is the problem of water scarcity?
Global water use has been growing at more than twice the rate of population growth in the last century.
Water scarcity already affects every continent and more than 40 percent of the people on our planet. By 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world’s population could be living under water stressed conditions.
In order to really understand how serious the problem is we first must take stock of the immense impact water has on our daily lives and our ability to provide for a better future.
Lack of access to adequate, safe water limits our ability to produce enough food to eat or earn enough income. It limits our ability to operate industries and provide energy. Without access to water for drinking and proper hygiene it is more difficult to reduce the spread and impact of life-threatening diseases like HIV/AIDS. Every day, 3 800 children die from diseases associated with a lack of safe drinking water and proper sanitation.
Is water scarcity being caused by climate change?
The water scarcity situation is being exacerbated by climate change, especially in the driest areas of the world, which are home to more than 2 billion people and to half of all poor people. The human impact on the earth’s environment and climate must be addressed in order to protect the world’s water resources. But there are other factors involved, such as increases in the amount of water needed to grow the food for a growing population. Agriculture is the number-one user of freshwater worldwide. Also, the trend towards urbanization and increases in domestic and industrial water use by people who live in more developed areas are factors that lead to growing water use.
Ultimately, though, the problem is one of the way in which we manage existing water resources and whether we as a global community truly have the political will to support policies and invest in programmes that protect our natural environment, conserve water and use less water to do more.
Political will and investment aren’t going to make the Sahara desert disappear?
Certainly not. But political will, international cooperation and investment can help to stem the loss of water from huge river basins like those of the Nile and Lake Chad. That is something that FAO and other United Nations agencies are involved in doing as we speak. Political will and investment can help to bring available water to the millions of small farmers around the world who are struggling to grow enough food to eat, by supporting locally-based programmes that directly involve those farmers and their neighbours in conserving rainfall, using water more efficiently and protecting water resources. Political, and moral, will can help us to bring water to the 1.1 billion people who do not have access to the minimum of 20-50 liters of freshwater required to meet their most basic needs and the 2.6 billion people who don’t have enough water to provide proper sanitation.
You say that agriculture is the world’s number-one user of freshwater. Shouldn’t the solution to water scarcity lie in agriculture?
First of all, there is no magic wand, no flip of the switch that is going to suddenly eliminate water scarcity. But there are concrete ways to turn the tide against water shortages. We at FAO recognize that the agriculture sector must take the lead in coping with water scarcity by finding more effective ways to conserve rain-fed moisture and irrigate farmlands.
There is no question that growing enough food is fundamental to fighting hunger and improving lives on every continent. But agriculture consumes about 70 percent of all freshwater withdrawn and up to 95 percent in several developing countries. To tackle water scarcity even as the demand for food increases, we must support initiatives to produce more food with proportionally less water. Again, this means protecting our waterways, keeping our forests healthy and improving the way in which we irrigate crops and manage livestock.
Can you give an example of how you would do that?
By thinking both big and small. First FAO advocates short-term, small-scale irrigation projects at the village level, including the development of low-cost and relatively simple, cost-effective methods which can be used by small farmers to irrigate crops. We have organized and supported pilot programmes in places like South Africa, Turkey and Mexico that focus on small scale irrigation or community-based systems for harvesting rainfall.
Often, one must help people to recover from severe water and food shortages by providing new crops and livestock while setting up irrigation projects, as we are doing right now with the support of the government and international donors in Niger. But the secret to long-term success is to break out of the cycle of responding to one water emergency after another and to put into place workable, sustainable long-term programmes.
This requires policy changes and cooperation on a larger scale. It means upgrading and improving the management of the facilities and then working across national borders to develop and protect water basins.
Last fall, you stated that the world was off-target for meeting the Millennium Development Goal of halving hunger by the year 2015. How can we be sure that it will be any different with the goal of improving access to water?
The two go hand-in-hand. Access to water is intricately linked to the achievement of most of the Millennium Development Goals, which include halving extreme poverty and hunger by 2015, halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and ensuring primary education for all children in the same time period. This is why we cannot make real progress in worldwide development without addressing the water scarcity issue.
Coping with water scarcity requires addressing a range of issues, not all of them directly linked to agriculture. They range from protection of the environment and global warming to fair pricing of water services and equitable distribution of water for irrigation, industry and household use. This is why not only the agriculture sector, but everyone – international organizations, governments, local communities – must share the responsibility.
As a global community, we have the capacity to greatly improve the management of our water resources and provide access to water for more people. But again, we cannot do it without placing greater political priority on ensuring that everyone has access to water and without investing in programmes which improve water conservation and delivery systems, protect the earth’s ecosystems, conserve rain-fed moisture and use water for food production more efficiently.
22 March 2007
Fast facts on water
Around 1.2 billion people, or almost one-fifth of the world’s population, live in areas of physical water scarcity, and 500 million people are approaching this situation.
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