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Director-General highlights valuing water as a “game changer" in Near East

At Baghdad First International Water Conference, FAO outlines the importance of sustainable allocation policies

13 March 2021, Baghdad/Rome - Governance, innovation and capacity building are the high roads to coping with water scarcity in Iraq and neighboring countries, which have been home to agricultural civilizations for 5000 years, FAO Director-General QU Dongyu said today.

"Effective water governance needs transparency, meaningful participation from diverse stakeholders and robust accountability mechanisms in place, he said.

The Director-General spoke at the Baghdad First International Water Conference, held to promote knowledge-sharing and policy debate on overcoming water scarcity challenges, especially in the region. Per capita renewable freshwater in the Near East and North Africa (NENA) is less than 10 percent of the world average, and one of every five people live in agricultural areas with very high water shortages and scarcity, according to FAO's State of Food and Agriculture 2020.

Stating that the transformation of agri-food systems is at the heart of FAO's mandate to provide safer, more affordable and healthier diets for the world's rapidly growing population, the Director-General noted that "Water is the essence of life and at the core of the agri-food systems" adding that he hoped to visit Iraq as soon as conditions permit.

Also participating in the opening session of the high-profile, two-day event were: Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kazemi of Iraq represented by the Minister of Planning, Prince El Hassan Bin Talal from the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Iraq's Minister of Water Resources, Irena Vojackova-Sollorano, the Deputy Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General, as well as the special water envoys of Turkey and the Netherlands, the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, the Regional Head of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the Head of Iraq's Parliamentary Committee for Agriculture, Water and Marshlands.

Other participants, in person and virtually, included ministers in charge of water affairs from around the Arab League, diplomats, regional and international organizations concerned with water affairs as well as the private sector.

Along with FAO's emphasis on the importance of robust and sustainable water accounting methods, research presented and discussions at the Conference covered areas including the scope for regional and international cooperation to mitigate water shortages, including collaboration in managing the Euphrates and Tigris river water basins, how to protect water infrastructure from terrorist groups and natural disasters, the adverse effects of climate change, the prospects for modern technology, the use of Geographic Information Systems in managing and controlling dams, the re-use of drainage as well as new forms of groundwater storage for irrigation as developed in the city of Karbala.

Recognizing water's value

FAO's technical and regional officers led a two-hour technical session at the conference focusing on the elements required for strategic planning of water resources allocation to foster viable economies, equitable societies and resilient ecosystems.

Noting that agriculture uses more water per unit surface area of land, and with the poorest economic returns compared to other activities or sectors, FAO emphasized that solid and reliable water accounting systems are a critical prerequisite for countries to formulate evidence-based and quantitively sound policies on allocating water, organizing its distribution and assuring accessibility.

Many countries in the NENA region have continued to sustain or even expand the allocation of water to agriculture, mostly driven by food self-sufficiency policies bolstered by the food-price crisis of 2008 and 2009 and concerns that geopolitical trends and climate change may not ensure open global food trade and accessible prices. However, if water is considered essentially free, thus undervalued, farmers and decision makers may not make their best contributions to food security and self-sufficiency.

Treating water as a commodity with actual market value could act as a "game changer", FAO Director-General noted.

Comprehensive water accounting reveals agriculture's use of water offers other social, political and economic returns with net benefits such as enhanced food security, rural development, employment opportunities, biodiversity protection, social stability and the conservation of cultural heritages. Successful FAO-supported water-related projects in the region include the United Arab Emirates' advanced aquaculture production center in the desert.

On a broader scale, FAO has set up a water scarcity initiative for the Near East and North Africa to promote regional collaboration. The Director-General also pointed to global public goods such as FAO's WaPOR portal, which uses remote sensors to monitor water productivity and its Hand-in-Hand Geospatial Data Platform as well as other services.

With digital and other technologies offering new solutions, it is essential that countries in the region ensure that citizens know how to use them, Qu emphasized that a comprehensive and well-coordinated capacity-building project is instrumental to prepare future generations for the digital world. He added that addressing knowledge gaps is of great importance, especially in Iraq due to conflict having hampered education and capacity for many years.

FAO in Iraq

Like most countries in the region, Iraq suffers from severe water scarcity that can be efficiently addressed through improved cooperation on the transboundary water of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers.

FAO led the agriculture and water system rebuilding component of the UN's recovery and resilience program in Iraq in the wake of conflict and also conducted an in-depth study of the agriculture sector of Iraq's north in the Kurdistan region, where the Organization has opened an office and is providing support for veterinary services monitoring transboundary and zoonotic diseases.

New FAO initiatives in the country include support for vulnerable urban populations in Basra - the centre of a water crisis in 2018 - support for resilient agri-food systems in southern Iraq - an area that has been home to traditional farming for thousands of years and is at risk of drying out. FAO is also rehabilitating wells and providing solar-powered pumping units to restore the northern Al-Jazeera irrigation network in liberated areas of northern Iraq.

FAO's technical session called for enhanced cooperation in water use at all levels; allocating water with an eye to present and future returns in terms of social, economic and environmental sustainability; and management approaches that foster recognition of environmental costs and benefits.

For governments, inter-ministerial coordination is particularly important to improve understanding of potential spillover impacts between sectors and the country's overall development policy.

Photo: ©FAO
FAO Director-Genera QU Dongyu (top right) and other high-level participants at the Baghdad First International Water Conference.