Securing enough food from limited water supplies

Increased irrigation efficiency is needed, while minimizing environmental impacts

ROME, 21 June 2002 -- As delegates at last week's World Food Summit: five years later considered ways to reduce the number of hungry, one of the most pressing concerns was the role of water in securing the world food supply. During a panel discussion on water and agriculture, participants shared ideas on how to find enough water to feed a growing population.

About half of accessible fresh water is mobilized for human use. And agriculture represents the biggest user -- about 70 percent worldwide and 85 to 95 percent in developing countries. Producing enough food to keep up with population growth poses a challenge, especially in water-scarce regions such as the Near East and North Africa and parts of Asia.

Producing "more crop per drop" is a large part of the solution. But FAO also recognizes that in some cases it may make more sense for farmers to target "more dollars per crop" -- choosing high-value cash crops that deliver more income per unit of water. And national governments may want to produce more "jobs per drop".

"The value of water must be recognized not only because of the food it can produce but also the income it can generate and the jobs it creates," explained Reto Florin, Chief of FAO's Water Resources, Development and Management Service.

Increased efforts will also be needed in nonconventional water use, including reusing more wastewater. FAO and the International Programme for Technology and Research in Irrigation and Drainage (IPTRID), hosted by FAO, are assisting countries with research and training in improved use of drainage and sewage water. In limited cases, desalinating seawater may be an option, though the cost of this technology can only be justified when the water is used to grow high-value cash crops.

New approaches to managing water for agriculture are also needed. In the past, huge investments were made to develop irrigation systems "but little thought was given to how to pay for operating costs and maintenance," said Jean-Marc Faures, Senior Water Resources Officer. These costs must be taken into consideration for the system to be viable. Transferring liabilities and responsibilities to water users' associations is one cost-recovery strategy currently being tried.

Small-scale farmers could benefit greatly from new technologies in water harvesting, irrigation and drainage -- yet they have little capital. "To be successful, the initial investment must be low, generally an amount they can earn back after one season," said Mr Florin. And the chosen technologies should also require little maintenance.

Other factors are necessary to ensure farmers reap the benefits of their hard work and investment, including available markets for their harvests, extension services to provide technical assistance and the availability of short-term, flexible microcredit schemes to provide the capital to make improvements. Governments must have the will to support these services, but most important, said Mr Florin, "is the involvement of farmers themselves in making all the decisions affecting their access to water."

While efforts are being made to increase irrigation efficiency, attention must also be paid to limiting harm to the environment and human health. Intensive agriculture can strain the Earth's fragile ecosystem. Of the 260 million hectares of irrigated land worldwide, 80 million are affected to some extent by salinization -- a concentration of salt on the soil surface that severely reduces soil fertility. FAO estimates that about half of irrigated land is in need of drainage but does not receive it. Poor irrigation and drainage can also spread water-borne diseases like schistosomiasis and malaria.

Often, the benefits of improved water management extend beyond food production. A study on the effects of irrigation projects in Burkina Faso, Mali and Tanzania showed that the introduction of small dams and wells also had a positive impact on the health, nutrition and welfare of villagers.
A farmer in Burkina Faso prepares an irrigation canal for his maize crops.

A farmer in Burkina Faso prepares an irrigation canal for his maize crops.

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FAO, 2002