Global Symposium on Soils and Water brings experts from around the world to discuss a multifold relationship

FAO: Prioritize soil and water conservation in all international agendas

FAO Director-General QU Dongyu, center, Deputy Director-General Maria Helena Semedo, left, and Lifeng Li, Director of Land and Water Division, right.

©FAO/Giulio Napolitano


FAO: Prioritize soil and water conservation in all international agendas
2 October 2023

Rome - Four days of intense discussion kicked off today with the opening of the Global Symposium on Soils and Water, hosted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

The relation between soil and water is deep and the “foundation of our agrifood systems, our environment, and our very existence,” FAO Director-General QU Dongyu said in opening remarks at the symposium, which includes more than 35 presentations on topics ranging from the impact of chemicals and wildfire on soil water retention capacity to better governance, integrated management and conservation of natural resources.

“Our soils are under pressure,” Qu said. He emphasized that the world faces a “global, collective and urgent challenge: Preserving the critical balance of soil and water.”

Soils are a kind of “virtual” Sustainable Development Goal, deeply intwined in many of the formal objectives and underscoring the many and complex balances to which the foundation of healthy terrestrial ecosystems contribute.

The FAO Director-General urged participants to work to “prioritize soil and water conservation in all international agendas.”

The symposium is managed by the Global Soil Partnership, based at FAO headquarters, the Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils (ITPS), composed of 27 top soil experts from around the world, and FAO’s Land and Water Division, whose officers will moderate many of the breakout technical discussion sessions.

“Water is the king of foods,” said Josefa Leonel Correia Sacko, the African Union Commissioner for Agriculture, Rural Development, Blue Economy and Sustainable Environment, quoting a Malagasy proverb. Water and soil “form the bedrock of our survival, our economy, and our future,” she said, noting that FAO is helping the African Union draft a harmonized legal framework to ensure the continent has a solid foundation for safeguarding its soil and water resources.

Soils are symbiotic with water, the central theme of this year’s World Food Day, the core topic of the recent FAO Conference and central to FAO’s Strategic Framework 2022-2031.

Given the importance of the integrated management of soils and water, the symposium coincides with and benefits from the Rome Water Dialogue 2023 (4-5 October), allowing for a technical exchange and a science-policy interface between participants of both events, with the reporting and closing plenary session jointly. In addition, on World Soil Day 2023 (5 December), soil and water will be at the heart of this year's theme, celebrated under the motto: "Soil and water, a source of life".

Main themes

The symposium is organized along four principal themes related to soil and water management.

In rainfed farming systems, soil water retention capacity is especially important. One point of discussion is the suitability of using soil organic carbon (SOC) as an indicator for land degradation neutrality and water scarcity, a critical issue already for more than three billion people.

In irrigated farming systems, efficiency and circular economy approaches can boost fertility and water quality and improve nutrient and water use efficacy.

Soil health is key to the One Health approach, which wraps together issues such as safety thresholds for contaminants and their impact on biodiversity, food quality and safety, as well as the nutritional value of the food we eat.

Appropriate policies and effective governance actions aimed at improving soil and water resources management are clearly essential, entailing a range of considerations including gender aspects while also highlighting the potential for new and emerging technologies such as precision agriculture, remote sensing and big data analytics.

FAO is already engaged in cutting-edge concrete applications of such innovations.

For example, the Soil mapping for resilient agrifood systems in Central America and sub-Saharan Africa Initiative (SoilFer), integrates soil and water data at the field scale and provides farmers in some of the most food-insecure parts of the world with precise fertilizer and all fertility management recommendations. The Soil-Land-Water digital Integrated Information System (SoLaWISe), enables FAO Members and farmers to access sophisticated global crop mapping data to guide sustainable natural resources management at farm and landscape levels.

WaPOR, FAO’s publicly-accessible remote sensing for water productivity app that uses satellite data to furnish a nearly real-time data base for monitoring evapotranspiration, a metric for determining how to optimize irrigation, which has proven particularly promising for water-strained areas. An important update to that tool will be launched during the symposium. 

Soils and water: a natural partnership

Effective soil moisture management practices are at the core of efficient agriculture and the challenge of eradicating hunger in a changing climate.

Soil and water also provide the foundation for healthy ecosystems, underscoring the need to take proactive safeguarding measures to mitigate and minimize problems such as soil erosion and compaction, which disrupt the capacity of soil to store, drain and filter water as well as exacerbate the risk of floods, landslides and sand or dust storms.  Such measures include promoting the sustainable use of agricultural inputs, employing appropriate irrigation methods, improving drainage systems and monitoring salinity level.

Such actions contribute to an effective response to the climate crisis as healthy soils act as a carbon sink, sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. Soil organic matter can retain about 20 times its weight in water– one cubic meter of soil can retain over 250 kilograms of water -  while damaged, compacted soil loses almost half its retention capacity.  Soils also filter and clean vast quantities of water, boosting human health. Today, more than one billion hectares of soil are impacted by salinity and sodicity, mainly because of poor irrigation and drainage practices,  and almost three times as much are at risk globally. 



FAO News and Media (+39) 06 570 53625 [email protected]

Christopher Emsden FAO News and Media (Rome) (+39) 06 570 53291 [email protected]