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Helping to Build a World Without Hunger
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photo © N. Forlano, FAO
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Water Scarcity - the role of agriculture
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The background
Today’s agriculture uses 70 per cent of all fresh water withdrawals globally, and up to 95 per cent in several developing countries, to meet the present food demand. Moreover, to keep up with growing food demand and shifting diets within the next 30 years, FAO estimates that the effective irrigated area will need to increase by 34 per cent in developing countries, and 14 per cent extra water to be withdrawn for agricultural purposes. It should also be remembered that currently irrigated agriculture provides an estimated 40 per cent of the global food supply on 20 per cent of cultivated land. However, these figures might change dramatically if large scale production of biofuels enters into the picture.

Historically, large-scale water development projects have played a major role in ensuring food supply for a rapidly growing population, and in contributing to poverty alleviation by providing food security, protection from flooding and drought, and expanded opportunities for employment. In many cases, irrigated agriculture has been a major engine for economic growth and poverty reduction.

In arid and semi-arid regions, where water scarcity is almost endemic, groundwater has played a major role in meeting domestic and irrigation demands. In many regions, massive use of groundwater has been practised for some time for irrigation. However, groundwater mining and the lack of adequate planning, legal frameworks and governance have opened a new debate on the sustainability of the intensive use of groundwater resources.

Most countries in the Near East and North Africa suffer from severe water scarcity, as do countries such as Mexico, Pakistan, South Africa, and large parts of China and India. Irrigated agriculture, which represents the bulk of the demand for water in these countries, is also usually the first sector affected by water shortage and increased scarcity, resulting in a decreased capacity to maintain per capita food production while meeting water needs for domestic, industrial and environmental purposes. It is expected that the areas suffering from severe water scarcity will increase under the influence of a changing climate due to global warming.

The conceptual framework
Future policy decisions will increasingly need to reflect the tight linkage between water and food security, and be based on a clear understanding of opportunities and trade-offs in managing water for agricultural production. During an expert consultation, more than 30 experts from different countries, institutions and professional background were asked to provide recommendations on a range of technical and policy options that FAO should promote as an agriculture response to water scarcity in member countries.

On the basis of this consultation, a conceptual and action framework was developed to help member countries in addressing the question of food security under conditions of water scarcity. The main elements of this framework are represented in a report that reviews a series of policy and technical options, and assesses the scope for adjustment in agricultural water use. The report also establishes a set of principles which should serve as a basis for the development of effective food security policies in response to growing water scarcity.


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