Fifteenth Session

Rome, 25-29 January 1998, Red Room


Item 6 of the Provisional Agenda

Table of Contents


The World Food Summit underscored the critical role of land and water in food production, food security and sustainable development. It called for the highest priority to be given to programmes aimed at solving the various land and water problems facing many regions and countries and affecting food production and sustainability of the resource base.

This paper reviews the major issues related to land and water quality and use in agriculture and presents current FAO activities and programmes related to land and water monitoring. It underlines the urgent need for a better assessment and monitoring of the state, use and degradation of land and water resources, at local, national and global levels. FAO has a comparative advantage and specific role to play in monitoring land and water resources trends and is expected to ensure the needed consistency of data and to make related information available to its Members and the international community.

Guidance is sought on the following issues and proposals which have direct implications on FAO's current and future activities in this field:

The Committee on Agriculture is invited to consider these issues and to provide country and regional perspectives to guide FAO's further activities. COAG's guidance is sought in particular on the priority and preferred course of action to deal with commitments raised within the UN system that require reporting to the Secretary-General of the UN.


1. The demographic trends in the developing countries, in combination with their still low levels of per caput food production, will require continued and increasing food supplies. FAO needs to project and monitor the global capacity to produce the food required at affordable prices, and also the domestic potential in the least developed countries with inadequate food supplies and limited effective market demand.

2. The expansion of agriculture into new lands that has characterized the evolution of agriculture in the past is likely to continue, particularly in the countries in which a combination of production potential and food need so dictates. Land in crop production will expand on an estimated 5 percent of the land reserve by 2010, mainly in land-rich moist eco-regions of Africa and Latin America. But agricultural land use tends to encroach on fragile ecosystems and forests, wetlands or protected areas and the process requires close monitoring and policy measures to be introduced to reverse the trends.

3. During the 20th century global freshwater withdrawals increased twice as fast as population. Irrigated agriculture appropriated about 70 percent of withdrawals and over 90 percent in some arid developing countries. Irrigation expansion was supported by policies aiming at boosting food production and development. However, irrigation expansion has already been declining and cannot continue at the same rate, owing to the high proportion of annually available freshwater resources already in use.



4. Owing to population growth, a continuous decline of cultivated land per person is recorded in the developing countries. Several countries have less than 0.1 ha of land-in-use per person and limited or virtually no land reserve. The declining land per caput constitutes a threat to food security, especially where rural populations depend on local land resources for a living.

5. Reserves of potentially arable land are mainly concentrated in a few countries. Only a small proportion has favourable agro-ecological conditions for agriculture development at reasonable cost. Most of the land reserves have fragile ecosystems that need to be protected, or soils with serious constraints requiring high investments for agriculture development or which are underutilized due to biotic constraints such as tsetse fly and trypanosomiasis.

6. Agricultural land is increasingly claimed for urbanization, urban growth having reached unprecedented proportions in developing countries. In many places the prime agricultural land is most susceptible to urban and industrial encroachment. But urbanization also alleviates the pressure of rural poverty in low-potential areas and facilitates the role of trade in supporting food security. The development of urban agriculture needs to be monitored and supported, in particular where it contributes to ensure food security.

7. Soil erosion, probably the most widespread and pernicious form of land degradation, is increasing in many parts of the world. Soil salinization also poses a major problem in irrigated as well as rainfed agriculture. Improved technologies and policies can facilitate a modest growth of population in marginal rural areas without aggravating land degradation. Soil conservation and rehabilitation or reclamation and related technologies need to be an integral part of agricultural development.

8. Desertification (human-induced land degradation in dryland areas) has received much attention by the international community with the adoption and implementation of the Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD). The area of cropland and rangeland prone to desertification is estimated at 30 percent of the world's land surface, and it has been increasing at an estimated 10 percent per year. There is little doubt that soil nutrient mining and the overuse of fragile soils for pasture and cultivation are major causes of desertification.

9. Land scarcity and inequality of access to land, water and other resources tend to push the rural poor into marginal, ecologically fragile areas. The often very important hydrological, ecological and socio-economic functions of wetlands are not perceived adequately and integrated approaches for their identification and management are needed; moreover the drainage of wetlands for food production in resources-poor countries with high population pressures tends to conflict with the conservation and sustainable use of these wetlands.

10. In many low-income, food-insecure countries with unfavourable overall development prospects, high incidence of rural poverty and continued high population growth rates, the number of people seeking to make a living in agriculture will continue to grow. Land reform will continue to be an important tool for poverty alleviation and increasing food security in rural areas. The awarding of secure land and water rights, whether individual or communal, will greatly increase the vested interest of smallholders in improving resources management and investing in fertility recapitalization and soil conservation as well as other land improvements.

11. As task manager for Chapter 10 of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) Agenda 21, FAO promotes an integrated approach to the planning and management of land resources. Implementation of the integrated approach encompasses the development of universally accepted land quality indicators and appropriate monitoring systems based on these for regular assessment of land conditions. Monitoring can provide the information required for sound decision-making for the sustainable management of land resources, and also to better understand the processes and trends in land degradation, enabling more timely and effective prevention, control and restoration. Population density and land rights indicators need to be included in the monitoring systems.


12. Global demands on limited freshwater resources are still increasing, while economically more attractive water development projects have already been realized. There is competition for water, particularly in arid regions with high population growth and development expectations. The productivity potential of irrigated agriculture has not, however, yet been exhausted. The picture is complex because there are a variety of local situations, ranging from water-scarcity with strong competition, through semi-arid regions that could still mobilize water for development, to humid regions where water is not a main constraining factor for agricultural development.

13. Increasing global water scarcity should not obscure the fact that in many places drainage of excess water is a main problem. Irrigated land is being lost because of inadequate drainage infrastructure and management. Important agricultural areas in the temperate region, in particular northeastern Europe, need extensive drainage improvement and maintenance to reach higher productivity levels and to control floods which continue taking their toll from rural people.

14. Pollution by domestic wastewater, urban drainage, industrial effluents and agricultural waste and drainage water is making increasing quantities of water unsuitable for use. Pollution control can be costly and have major economic and social consequences. Approaches such as "polluter pays" are being implemented in developed countries with widespread public support and strong financing. Problems in pollution control have been faced by some developing countries and adequate and timely measures need to be taken to avoid costly environmental rehabilitation.

15. Many developing countries, including some of the poorest food-insecure countries in the tropics, still have substantial freshwater reserves. These countries can use water development both to produce food for their population and as an instrument for generating economic growth and income, resulting in improved food security. Technology for timely and accurate irrigation is available and will increasingly be used as scarcity and competition drive up the cost of water.

16. The publication of "Water Policies and Agriculture" in FAO's State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA) 1993 considerably raised global awareness of water scarcity as a constraint to development. Concern was heightened further through the UN "Comprehensive Assessment of the Freshwater Resources of the World"(1997). The UN Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD) directed the Secretary-General of the United Nations to improve joint programming within the UN system, and to recognize the need for periodically issuing a global picture of the state of freshwater resources.


17. User requirements are different at international, national and local level:

18. Fundamental FAO exercises, such as "World Agriculture Towards 2020", rely on provision of basic data for analysis and projections. The Special Programme on Food Security (SPFS) requires the identification of high potential areas where efforts should be concentrated. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and the Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR) need data to take decisions on research priorities that concern marginal areas and crops. Without adequate information on land and water, agricultural policy statements that properly refer to sustainability cannot be made, whether at global, national or sub-national level.

19. Governments that are signatories of various UNCED initiatives - Convention on Biological Diversity, Convention to Combat Desertification - are confronted with decisions to be made on land use conflicts involving the claims for identification, demarcation and control of nature reserves and the claims for agriculture and other uses. To this end governments need reliable information on the potential and constraints of the land resources in order to make adequate decisions on their allocation and use.

20. Without quantitative knowledge of the elements of the water balance and performance of irrigation systems, the potential to improve them remains largely unknown. A major effort is required for the understanding of water systems and the implications of reallocation of the resource to increase efficiency of water use. Full understanding of the processes, based on river basin data, is needed for devising adequate policies and management action.

21. Both water-scarce countries and those plagued by excess water need more comprehensive, more accurate and better integrated water information for planning, development and management of a more productive agriculture. As global trade expands and food security comes to rely increasingly on trade, global land and water data and information are needed to monitor changes and trends in the state of the world's land and water resources.

22. About 300 major river basins and many groundwater aquifers cross national boundaries. International and regional water conflicts are generally related to attempts to increase supply. In the arid regions, where these conflicts are more severe, the argument is often raised that the increased supplies are indispensable for food security and, as a consequence, for national security. It is essential for riparian countries to find ways of cooperating in the development and management of transboundary water resources. A global water information base and systematic monitoring data are essential tools for the process of negotiation and settlement of transboundary water issues to which FAO should contribute.


23. FAO activities related to land and water information and monitoring include:

24. FAO, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Soil Reference and Information Centre agreed in 1995 jointly to produce a first version of an updated global soil and terrain database (SOTER) by the year 2002, and to systematically make an inventory of, and assess, the status of land degradation (GLASOD) and successful techniques for soil conservation and land rehabilitation (WOCAT). These inventories will be combined with more detailed inventories in selected countries.

25. General soil assessment methodologies and frameworks were tested in several workshops in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Country studies and regional inventories were initiated in cooperation with national institutes and international partners, including the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, Centro International de la Papa, the German Technical Co-operation Agency and others.

26. To meet the increasing demand on the data relating to the contribution of agriculture in economic development, the FAO Corporate Database for Substantive Statistical Data (FAOSTAT) provides primary data on area, production and productivity for different crops, land use, fertilizer consumption, etc. To present the global picture of agricultural production and its impact on food supply, FAOSTAT also presents country-wise food balance sheets, foreign trade statistics relating to food and agricultural commodities as well as population dependent on agriculture.

27. The AFRICOVER project, a collaborative effort between FAO and regional and national institutions in Africa to produce updated land cover maps of individual countries in Africa, has established a geographical referential with respect to land use information.

28. FAO is co-operating with IIASA in upgrading its global AEZ methodology and database for use in regular assessment of arable land potentials to generate information for global and similar studies on agriculture and food security. This includes decision support tools for land use analysis in order to determine the optimal allocation of land to its most suitable uses.

29. Under a project on Mapping of Soil and Terrain Vulnerability in Central and Eastern Europe (SOVEUR), a geographic data base is used to map status of human-induced land degradation in 13 countries, with particular reference to soil pollution and soil vulnerability to different pollutant categories. The project results will also serve a global programme on the development of a world soil and terrain information system, a world assessment of the status and risk of soil degradation, and the potential productivity assessment of the land. The results of SOVEUR and other related projects were used to compile Guidelines that can be adapted to other countries and regions.

30. Since 1992 WOCAT has been used as a tool which aims at promoting improved decision- making on land management and transfer of appropriate technology through collection, analysis, presentation and dissemination of knowledge on soil and water conservation (SWC) world-wide. A systematic inventory of techniques of soil conservation and land rehabilitation is presently being undertaken using WOCAT. The tool has also been used to identify options for overcoming land degradation problems. Upgraded national products and interpretations are produced nationally and aggregated data with case studies are shared globally.

31. Contacts have been maintained, among others, with the user communities of the information bases which are grouped in the International Geosphere and Biosphere Programme and the Global Terrestrial Observation System. This also includes the modelling community in universities and research institutes, and international bodies such as the World Bank, UNEP, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), World Meteorological Organization (WMO), International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) and the World Resources Institute (WRI).

32. Water issues cut across the field of competence of almost all agencies of the UN system but coordination and synergy are ensured through the ACC Sub-Committee on Water Resources. FAO keeps close contacts concerning water in particular with the World Health Organization (WHO), WMO, UNESCO, UNEP and the World Bank. A large number of NGOs and national institutes also participate in international water activities. FAO keeps close contacts with the International Commission of Irrigation and Drainage (ICID) and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). Among international coordination and promotion groups, FAO is associated with the Global Water Partnership.

33. FAO's AQUASTAT assembles systematic information on water resources and rural water use. AQUASTAT was launched in view of the unavailability of any global database on water usable for sustainable land and water management. About 90 percent of the global irrigated area is covered and AQUASTAT-derived reports "Irrigation in Figures" were produced for Africa, the Near East and the countries of the former Soviet Union. A report for the Americas will be put together in 1998 and published in 1999. Derived information on Irrigation Potential in Africa, "A Basin Approach" (1997), correcting widespread double accounting of water resources in shared basins, was available for the UN/CSD 1995-96 Comprehensive Assessment of the Freshwater Resources of the World.

34. A database on systems, methods and equipment for improved farm irrigation techniques is being developed in response to an increasing demand for information about reliable, low-cost technology for timely and accurate water delivery. It is complemented by practical leaflets on improved on-farm irrigation techniques including costs, sample design and applications and by a computerized database of information on irrigation equipment supply. The material will be accessible in future on the Internet, including short descriptions and information on irrigation equipment, a directory of manufacturers and suppliers and a collection of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and other irrigation equipment standards. Following a pilot phase, funding will be required for the next biennium.

35. The importance of policy advice on water resources management has led FAO's Water Service to produce and publish information and guidance that can be applied to national capacity building. Through regional trust funds, FAO participates in water resources capacity building and monitoring in Lake Victoria and the Nile basin. Under the Technical Cooperation Programme (TCP), FAO cooperated with the Central American Parliament in developing regional water policies. Increasingly, this work is carried out in co-operation with partners such as the European Union, the World Bank and UNDP. AQUASTAT is an essential basis for these activities but will need ongoing funding for periodic updates.


36. Current national-level data on land and water have large lacunae and are often of poor quality, in particular in the less developed countries. Baseline information on land qualities and the state of land degradation and erosion, and of the soil fertility status of cultivated lands are limited, and also information on current land use does not exist in many of these countries. The lack of data prevents additional progress in examining research gains by type of land. Questions such as the types of land likely to give the highest rates of return to further investment in international agricultural research, the optimal balance between the objectives of enhancing productivity of land, of preventing its degradation, and of restoring already degraded land, remain extremely important in determining future priorities and strategies.

37. The existing global land and water resource information is partly outdated. The information on land degradation is more recent but lacks detail. Actual land use information is often required but has never been systematically compiled nor harmonized worldwide.

38. Perhaps the most significant gaps in knowledge of land and water resources is the present use of these resources, especially that of water and land under irrigation and rainfed agriculture. Other gaps in existing global data sets concern information on water use and water demand (including irrigation), water rights and socio-economic data. FAO is solicited, jointly with other agencies of the United Nations system, to contribute, within its field of competence, to a periodically updated global picture of the state of land and freshwater resources.

39. Monitoring the state of use of land and water resources and the future sustainability and vulnerability of its development relating in particular to food security, requires that adequate land and water resources information be assembled. The information should be collected on a country basis, using existing systems as far as appropriate and stored in geographic information systems. For compatibility with water accounting, land data needs to be recompiled in terms of river basins and water divides.

40. International data collection requires that all data be put on a comparable basis as regards units and criteria for measurements and assessments, and comparable time periods for time series. To facilitate data integration by users and cost-effective data collection, data standards are needed, including a procedure for data quality control and a way to calibrate and verify the accuracy of information based upon them. Guidelines are needed on how to build and maintain data sets.


41. In the context of population pressure, development and environmental concerns, land and water management issues have become increasingly complex and interdependent and require integration of land and water information with sectoral information and improved decision-support tools. New technology allows the establishment of comprehensive integrated systems, which allow access to multi-scale information and multi-purpose analysis in support of decision-making in land and water. For example, Satellite Based Positioning System (SBPS) navigation and remotely sensed image display and analysis, can be incorporated to enhance the capability and broaden the applications of the integrated systems. Similarly, technologies for site-specific agriculture at local or field level will play an increasing role in raising land productivity.

42. With new low-cost technologies and tools now available, development and implementation of rapid and effective land and water monitoring has become accessible. The success of the concept relies on integrating recent advances in information technology (rapid data capture through remote sensing and SBPS, fast workstations and software, rapid development of applications, and multi-media for speedy dissemination of information) with local researchers and land and water resources planners and managers.


43. The spectrum of activities associated with land and water resources monitoring is so diverse that no one organization has the range of competence and the financial resources to deal with all of them. Duplication of effort should be avoided and information needs to be more integrated than in the past. FAO is concentrating its efforts in the areas where it can make a maximum contribution. It has a comparative advantage over other institutions in globally collecting information on land and water resources and use at country level. In particular FAO has a specific and recognized capacity in the assessment of land and rural water use and in its ability to integrate land and water issues with other issues within FAO's mandate, such as inland fisheries, forestry and rural development. FAO is also the leading agency in building soils and terrain databases and applying these in global and national agricultural studies. FAO embarked on AQUASTAT because of the demand for this water use data which no other agency was in a position to provide.

44. It will be important for FAO to focus on the needs of its major programme initiatives, i.e. global assessment, integrated river basin management and management of land and water resources at local level. In addition, FAO is solicited within the UN system to contribute to global information initiatives. Collaboration with NGOs and the private sector should be sought where possible.

45. Within the framework of its normative activities FAO initiated a six-year project "Development of information and decision-support systems on integrated land and water resources management" in 1998. The project provides the framework for all future FAO initiatives in the area of land and water information and monitoring. The project will:


46. The Committee on Agriculture is invited to consider these issues and to provide country and regional perspectives to guide FAO's further activities. In particular, guidance is sought on the following issues and proposals that have direct implications on FAO's current and future activities in this field:

47. COAG's guidance is sought on ways of strengthening international cooperation in the area of land and water resources monitoring. COAG may also wish to raise to the attention of Members that country-level information on land and water, which it is their responsibility to collect, is not only the foundation for national planning but also provides the building blocks for regional and global systems needed for monitoring global food security and the health of our planet.