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Improving policies

Policies, institutions and laws can be devised to increase water productivity at many different levels. At the level of individual consumption, policies that encourage people to eat less water-intensive foods - wheat rather than rice, poultry rather than beef, for example - could increase water efficiency markedly. At the local level, improved irrigation management would do much to improve efficiency: the best way of doing this is to give those who actually use irrigation water the power to plan and manage their own supplies, at least at the local level. In addition, transparency and accountability must be improved, and incentives provided for saving water. At the river basin level, a major priority is to improve integration not only between land- and water-use planning but also among the many other water users involved - hydro-electric schemes, industry and urban populations, for example.

Improving management at local level

The role of water users

In many countries, responsibility for the management of irrigation systems is being handed over by central government to private enterprise and local user associations. Attempts are being made at many different levels of management to involve farmers and smallholders, women and men, in the planning and management of water resources. As a result of the South African Water Act of 1998, for example, Catchment Management Agencies have been formed with the participation of both poor men and women. In Turkey, the management of irrigation systems has been almost entirely handed over from government to farmer associations. In Mexico, the management of more than 85 percent of the 3.3 million hectares of publicly irrigated land has been taken over by farmers' associations, most of which are now financially independent. This has meant increasing the charges made for irrigation water but, even so, they have been kept within the 3-8 percent of total production costs that is normally considered reasonable.

Professional organizations are often needed to manage reservoir and large canal systems but user organizations can nearly always manage the final distribution system; irrigation management organizations can often be `re-born' as service providers or service companies.

The importance of urban agriculture

Urban garden outside Bissau town, Guinea Bissau.

Urban agriculture is growing fast, and not only among the poor. Latest estimates suggest that globally as many as one-third of all urban dwellers take part in urban agriculture which provides up to one-third of urban food requirements. In many urban areas, farming occupies more ground than buildings and roads: some 60 percent of the land in Greater Bangkok, for example, is farmed.

Urban agriculture often involves the constructive use of urban wastes for water and nutrients, and it can be highly efficient: intensive vegetable production may, for example, use only 5-20 percent of the water and only 8-16 percent of the land needed to grow rural, tractor-cultivated crops. In Botswana, for instance, a high technology variety of container horticulture is practised which can produce the equivalent of 20 tonnes of maize per hectare.

In some water-scarce countries, a radical vision of water use is emerging in which water is first allocated to urban areas. After use and treatment there, the wastewater is then made available to agriculture. Urban industry funds the costs of water supply and treatment, and the treated water is supplied to farmers at low cost.

Increasing transparency and accountability

Many water institutions in many countries have a history of bureaucracy, secrecy and heavy-handed attitudes to customers and clients. There has often been a lack of transparency and accountability in the water business. As water becomes more scarce, the need for public information about how water is used, by whom and in what quantities will become increasingly acute - and so will the need for information about who pollutes and to what extent. Access to information via the Internet will make it easy for institutions to appear transparent - although real transparency involves more than the publication of a few, carefully selected data.

There is increasing legal precedence for the view that water institutions, particularly those involved with irrigation, are accountable for their actions to their end users and to society at large. If the manufacturers of motor vehicles are to become responsible for the final disposal of their products, it is likely that water institutions can be held responsible for the timely delivery of their product in a pure state - especially since polluted water can lead to polluted food and threats to human health.

Providing incentives

One of the keenest incentives to saving water is a pricing policy that makes wasting water expensive. Removing government subsidies for irrigation water is a first step but one that should not be taken without due thought to the effects on poor farmers. Pricing policies can be pitched so that farmers neither pay the full cost of their water nor get it free. For example, charges can be based on a traditional price for a fraction, one-half for example, of the volume normally used, an increased price for the next quarter and a much higher price for the final quarter. Tiered pricing systems of this kind can produce substantial savings.

They can also be used to protect aquifers that are being overpumped. Once a study has assessed the rate at which an aquifer is naturally replenished, rights to extract this amount can be distributed among the farmers who use the aquifer. Farmers who insist on pumping more than their allowance can then either be charged very high prices or can be forced to buy pumping rights on an open market from others not using their full allowance.

Maximizing water productivity means not only maximizing agricultural production per drop of water but also maximizing the number of rural jobs that can be created with limited water resources. The value of water, in other words, is both the food it can produce and the income it can generate. Distribution of irrigation water can be a means of increasing employment if water is distributed to rural families on the basis of where they live rather than the land they own. Several schemes, notably in India and Africa, have experimented with the distribution of sufficient water to irrigate a small parcel of land to every homestead or to every man and woman in a certain area. The schemes have increased both incomes and food production. In this context, it is important that switching from rainfed agriculture, where jobs are occasional and highly seasonal, to irrigated agriculture, which often requires year-round labour in both the fields and on the distribution systems, often entails an increase in jobs.

Improving river basin management

The ultimate aim of water management is to optimize water use throughout a river basin in such a way that all users have access to the water they need. All users include more than the big three - urban, industrial and agricultural. Other users include electricity utilities that need water for hydro-electric schemes and for cooling water for conventional and nuclear power stations, port authorities that need water for navigation, wetland areas that are needed as natural filters and wildlife sanctuaries, and downstream fisherfolk whose livelihoods depend on river flow.

Improving management in the Nile Basin

The Nile Basin Initiative was launched in 1998 by the Council of Ministers of Water Affairs of ten states that border the Nile. FAO has been helping nations improve the management of the Nile Basin for more than ten years. It has, for example, helped:

  • develop a forecasting system for the Nile River and a control and decision support system for management of the High Aswan Dam reservoir in Egypt;
  • strengthen technical capacity in the Lake Victoria region to monitor water resources, develop modelling tools and establish a geo-referenced database system for the region;
  • build up capacity to manage the Nile Basin water resources.

Water resource management system for Lake Victoria integrates agricultural and hydropower planning with hydrological studies.

During the next few decades, difficult priorities will have to be set. One inevitable factor will be the growing needs of urban populations. Who owns water rights is a matter of great concern since in many parts of the world urban centres have simply appropriated the water in peri-urban areas which they regard as their property, depriving farmers in the area of their livelihoods. Elsewhere intensive trading occurs between municipal authorities - which have the funds - and rural landowners, who own the water rights. Few river basins have yet rationalized all this in the logical progression which suggests that the purest water be first used for domestic supplies, that treated domestic supplies be then used for irrigation of crops such as cereals, and that the poorest quality water be used for the irrigation of forestry plantations, pasture land, parks, gardens and lawns.

Organizing water management on this scale is even more complicated for river basins that are shared by two or more countries. There are many of them: 47 percent of the Earth's land surface lies within international river basins, of which there are more than 200. Thirteen of these are shared by five or more countries. River basins that are shared by developed countries are already subject to numerous agreements governing the rational use of these water resources; those shared by developing countries are subject to far fewer agreements. FAO has been helping develop a sound basis for such agreements for many years.

Towards a better future

FAO believes in a future in which both rural and urban people have secure livelihoods and adequate nutrition. In such a future, farmers would be in control of their livelihoods and resource base, and would produce all the food needed, both by farmers and non-farmers, using their own ingenuity and the physical resources available to them. Young people would stay in their rural communities, helping care for the more elderly, and live in security.

Hungry mouths depend on water for agriculture which provides not only the food to eat but the income with which to buy it ...

Rural areas, like urban ones, would have educational, cultural and social services, and employment opportunities. There would be access to food produced locally and elsewhere, and transportation and communication links with markets, administrative centres and the economy at large. Rural men and women would participate in a global improvement of the standard of living and its dividends reflected in quality of life, health and leisure. Agriculture and other activities would be carried out in harmony with the environment, with clean water in streams, lakes and aquifers, surrounded by and integrated with healthy natural ecosystems. Water would be managed efficiently and on a sustainable basis. Access to water and other agricultural resources would be available on an equitable basis and in a fair economic environment that provided opportunities for all.

Such a future will not come about automatically: it requires that people be given access to their human, political and economic rights. Society needs to be organized in such a way that food and water are accessible to all, even its weakest members. Each generation has an obligation to preserve the natural and agricultural heritage for its successors, so that today's production does not reduce the capacity of future generations to produce what is necessary for life. Most importantly, both men and women must have a voice in the decisions that affect them, including those that relate to water allocation and management. Decision-making authority needs to be devolved to the lowest possible level and people need to have access to the information required to make such decisions.

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