Impact of water scarcity on food security a priority for Near East and North Africa meeting

New initiative eyes role of regional cooperation to enhance agricultural water management

20 February 2014, Rome - Water scarcity is one of the most urgent food security issues facing countries of the Near East and North Africa (NENA), with fresh water availability in the region expected to drop by 50 percent by the year 2050, said FAO, as ministers of agriculture and national officials prepared to tackle the issue at a meeting of the organization's highest regional governing body.

Participants in the 32nd FAO Regional Conference for the Near East  (NERC-32), to be held from 24 to 28 February, are set to discuss a new Regional Water Scarcity Initiative, launched by FAO to support member countries in identifying strategies, policies and practices that promote sustainable solutions to water scarcity and related food security problems.

Per capita fresh water availability in countries of the Near East and North Africa has plummeted by two-thirds over the past 40 years, heightening concerns over the degradation of water quality and the impact of climate change.

Demographic trends are adding urgency to the issue: Chronic undernourishment in the region is estimated at 11.2 percent, based on the 2010-2013 reporting period, while the population continues to grow at 2 percent, almost twice the global rate.

Farming and other agricultural activities consume more than 85 percent of available rainfed, irrigated and groundwater resources, and the demand for agricultural products is expected to grow amid burgeoning urban populations and increased exports.

"Agriculture must be central to our responses to the challenge of water scarcity in the Near East and North Africa Region. Agriculture is by far the largest user of water in the region, but it is also fundamental to our survival and long-term resilience, accounting for some $95 billion in added value to regional economies," said Abdessalam Ould Ahmed, FAO Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for the Near East and North Africa.

"The region has made significant strides in two decades in developing its water usage and storage capacities, but there is still much work to be done to improve water efficiency in agriculture, protect water quality, and address challenges related to climate change," Ould Ahmed added.

Conference participants are expected to offer guidance on priority areas for action, such as improving governance and institutions; giving more voice to farmers and other non-state stakeholders; and boosting efficiency in water use, both within and across national borders.
More than 60 percent of the water resources used by countries in the region comes from outside of national and regional boundaries.  

Pilot initiative

The pilot phase of the initiative, which was launched in June 2013, in six countries (Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Oman, Tunisia and Yemen) began reviewing the current status of water availability and use and the potential for further agricultural production; identifying and ranking options for future food supply in terms of both their economic and water-requirement costs; and, looking at the performance of agriculture water management and relevant policies, governance and institutional issues.

Work done under the initiative will encourage countries to learn from success stories in other countries to improve management and the use of rainfed, irrigated and groundwater systems through an innovative approach that includes:

  • The creation of a broad consensus on the water reform agenda among all involved stakeholders.
  • The acknowledgement of farmers' role in prompting a shift in the way water resources are used and managed.
  • The involvement of the private sector as the actual manager of the food value chain and the supplier of the latest available technologies.
  • The establishment of partnerships which are action-oriented and results-based.
  • The development of tools to concretely measure results and collect evidence to support policy-making and decision-making processes.

Regional perspectives

The upcoming Conference, whose theme is "For a resilient and food secure region," will be the first of a series of meetings to be held in 2014 in each of the organization's five operational regions.

The agenda will also focus on the state of food and agriculture in the region and related issues like food losses and waste along the production-to-consumption chain; enhancing gender equality; and, other approaches to improving agricultural and rural development prospects.

The Regional Conferences meet every two years, bringing together ministers of agriculture and high officials of Member States from the same geographic region on challenges that transcend national borders and priority matters related to food and agriculture. NERC 32 will include a three-day meeting for Senior Officers from 24 to 26 February, followed by a Ministerial Meeting on 27 and 28 February.

Photo: ©FAO/Rosetta Messori
Conservation and management of water resources is crucial to food security.