Agriculture, food security and water: Towards a blue revolution

Spotlight on Water

Growing enough food to feed the world depends on water supply. The challenge can be met, though there are conditions. 

Water is a precious and finite resource and population is on the increase. Rain-fed and irrigated agriculture play a key role in ensuring food security for everybody. Currently 840 million people in the world still go hungry and are chronically undernourished. So will it be possible to feed an additional 2 billion people and manage water consumption in a sustainable way?

Clearly, it will be an enormous challenge to provide enough water for global food production, especially in those regions and countries where water is already scarce.

FAO projects that world food production needs to increase by around 60% to feed a growing world population. More people will be better fed, and patterns of food consumption are becoming similar throughout the world: more people will eat higher-quality food, such as meat and dairy products, which require even more water to produce.

However, not everybody will benefit from this progress. Hunger and under-nourishment will still be widespread, although to a lesser extent. Unless major changes take place, more than 440 million people will still suffer from hunger by 2030. If present trends continue, the target set by the World Food Summit in 1996, to reduce by half the number of undernourished people by 2015, may not even be reached by 2030. Urgent action is needed to speed up the fight against hunger by securing and strengthening the agricultural sector in poor developing countries.

Currently, some 20% (around 205 million hectares) of agricultural land in developing countries is irrigated and it provides about 40% of crop production in these countries. Developing countries are expected to expand their irrigated area by 40 million hectares by 2030.

While there will be no global shortage of land or water for irrigation, serious water problems will continue to persist in some developing countries and regions. Already several countries in the Near East and North Africa, as well as South and East Asia are using more groundwater than is currently being replenished. Some are even drawing on precious fossil groundwater for crops, a resource whose value for drinking water should not be ignored.

Agriculture is under pressure to use water resources much more efficiently. It has to be much more proactive in managing its demand for water and improving the performance of both irrigated and rain-fed production. We need to invest in both improved technologies and better management in order to achieve more “crop per drop”.

FAO calls upon countries to focus on a much more strategic development of the available land and water resources to service effective demand for food products and agricultural commodities. We want countries to create irrigation systems that are more flexible and service oriented, and water institutions that are more transparent and accountable.

Low cost, small-scale options in water harvesting, irrigation and drainage also have to be emphasised. For instance, water harvesting – collecting water in structures ranging from small furrows to dams – allows farmers to conserve rainwater and direct it to crops. And localised methods such as drip irrigation, which direct water only where it is needed, are more efficient than flooding fields and using sprinklers.

Of course, making these approaches effective requires the participation of water users – individual farmers and farmer’s groups – so as to boost local economic development and protect the public interest in land and water resources. And legal reforms may be needed to ensure that there is equity in access to land and water for all user groups.

In short, to revolutionise agricultural water management we have to move beyond purely technical solutions. Agriculture has to shoulder a much broader responsibility in its water use, which includes protecting human health and the environment. Global action with appropriate funding mechanisms should link global goals with local initiatives and local needs, particularly for poor farmers and vulnerable groups. While international partnerships and private sector involvement through financial support, technical assistance and capacity building should be fostered, water-scarce countries could import basic foods such as cereals from water-surplus areas (“virtual water”) and use their own limited water resources to grow high value crops, such as fruits, vegetables and flowers. The foreign exchange they earn from this could then be used to buy cereal imports.

Naturally, countries facing food insecurity, water stress and drought need to be assured that they can have fair and secure trade with water-abundant nations. Addressing this should become a priority for the World Trade Organization.

Equally, the poorest countries that cannot afford to buy food imports are in need of agriculturally-based rural development programmes, in order to increase productivity, reduce poverty and improve gender equity – three keys to improving food security.

Water control has been a key component of the FAO’s Special Programme for Food Security to intensify crop production and to diversify farm income. The programme is now operational in more than 70 countries. It promotes simple, low-cost water control technologies for small farmers. What is needed is the political will and investment at local, national and international levels to improve water control in many poor countries.

I am convinced that if the international community and the countries concerned made better agricultural water management a political and financial priority, we would experience fewer disasters like the current food crisis in southern Africa. We could then concentrate our efforts on improving the development and management of water for agriculture to meet the growing demand for food, alleviate poverty and sustain economic growth.

©OECD Observer No 236, March 2003

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