Water to feed the world: perspectives for the future

The Second World Water Forum in The Hague began on 17 March and ended on World Water Day, 22 March, amidst talk of a global water crisis. Indeed, finding enough water to irrigate crops and feed a steadily growing population is cause for concern. By the year 2030, more than 8 billion people will inhabit the earth, requiring 60 percent more food than today. And since agriculture is the primary user of water, increasing crop production means withdrawing ever more water from our finite and already strained supplies.

A training programme in Chapula, Zambia teaches farmers to grow vegetable crops using syphon irrigation
FAO/11167/Peyton Johnson

But recent studies also give reason for optimism. An FAO analysis of water use in 93 developing countries suggests that the rise in global water requirements is actually slowing.

"By 2030," says Reto Florin, chief of FAO's Water Resources, Development and Management Service, "developing countries should be able to boost food production significantly by increasing irrigated cropland by about one third, yet using only 12 percent more water."

Since irrigated land produces two to three times more crops than rainfed land, increasing the use of irrigation could hold the key to feeding the growing population. What may be surprising is that it can be done with so little water, despite irrigation's very high water demands.

FAO believes that irrigation efficiency - the capacity to produce more food with less water - is improving in the arid regions of the developing world and will continue to do so, in part because these countries have no other choice. "Water limitations in developing countries will force them to be more efficient," says Jean-Marc Faurès, water resources officer at FAO. Indeed, a number of countries in northern Africa and the Near East are already using more than 40 percent of their total renewable water supplies for agriculture.

Greater research and training in water management is helping. For example, when FAO launched a horticulture project a decade ago in Cape Verde, it got off to a slow start because of the African island nation's limited water resources and low annual rainfall (about 230 mm/year). Drip irrigation was then introduced, in which water is placed only where it's needed, in the soil above the root zone. National horticulture production shot up from 5 700 tonnes in 1991 to 17 000 tonnes in 1999. Initiatives like this are part of the reason FAO expects water use efficiency in developing countries to increase from 43 to 50 percent by 2030.

In some water-scarce regions, no amount of water efficiency will close the food production gap. In these cases, water is better used to produce high-value crops that can be sold to buy imported food. This is happening in Tunisia, for instance, where farmers are increasingly choosing to grow irrigated fruits, vegetables and flowers due to their high market value.

Sometimes the issue is not lack of water but lack of access to water. Industry upstream can leave river water too polluted for a farmer's needs downstream, or because of poor coordination, one farmer may block access for another. The small farmer may simply not have the financial resources to bring water to the fields. Finally, rivers that cross more than one country must be managed by multi-party agreements to ensure overall best use of water and avoid potential conflict. For example, with technical assistance from FAO, ten states that border the Nile have launched the Nile Basin Initiative to prepare equitable water development and management policies and strategies.

One way to improve access may be to treat water as an economic good as well as a social right. In the past, industry and the wealthy often benefited more from government water projects, effectively receiving clean water at lower prices while the poor were left to buy inferior water at an elevated cost. "Instead of subsidizing the water supplier, we should charge for the full cost of water and then help the poor pay the bill," suggests Mr Florin.

Improved efficiency is not only about saving water but also managing it in a sustainable way. Poorly managed irrigation can cause problems: salinization, in which salt builds up in the soil, has sapped the productivity of at least 20 percent of the world's irrigated lands. A necessary part of irrigation projects is therefore ensuring proper drainage so salt does not accumulate and damage soil fertility.

Farmers still need to learn to produce more food with less water, and certain regions, such as parts of Africa and the Near East, face water scarcity that require urgent action. "We do have regional problems and we need to work on regional solutions," says Mr Faurès. "But if the question is, do we have enough water to feed the world, the answer is yes."

22 March 2000

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