FAO says securing water will secure agriculture

"Appropriate policies and good governance practices are needed to encourage and guide farmers to make better use of water," the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) said in a message on World Water Day, March 22.

Agriculture is the biggest water consumer. On average, according to FAO, it takes one ton of water to produce one kilogram of wheat. Most of the water used by crops comes from the rain stored in the soil.

Irrigation covers 20 percent of cultivated land, but it represents 40 percent of the world's agricultural production. By securing access to water, it plays a strategic role in ensuring agricultural production.

The demand for food is not negotiable

"The demand for food is not negotiable. To satisfy the growing demand for food between 2000 and 2030, production of food crops in developing countries is projected to increase by 67 percent. At the same time, a continuing rise in productivity should make it possible to restrain the increase in water use for agriculture to about 14 percent," FAO Land and Water division director Kenji Yoshinaga said.

In the past, large-scale, state supported irrigation schemes contributed substantially to increasing agricultural production and enhancing the livelihood of farmers, while producing food at lower cost for the benefit of urban and rural populations alike. However, they have been slow to adapt to a rapidly changing economic environment and the cost of their impact on the environment has been largely underestimated.

Many such systems are institutionally and technically ill equipped to respond to the challenge of increased water scarcity and the need for agricultural diversification, under the pressure of market changes and rapid globalization, according to FAO.

Responding to farmers' needs

"Modernization of irrigated agriculture, through technological upgrading and institutional reform, will be essential in ensuring much needed gains in water productivity," FAO water management expert Jean-Marc Faures said.

"Irrigation institutions must respond to the needs of farmers, ensuring flexible and reliable delivery of water, increasing transparency in its management and balancing efficiency and equity in access to water," he explained.

In many cases, the cost of water development on the environment has been too high. Finding new ways for agriculture to alleviate its negative impacts is essential, not only to maintain the integrity and productivity of the ecosystems, but also to sustain the conditions under which agriculture can contribute to food security, poverty alleviation and economic growth.

"It is time to move towards a true valuation of water, through a mechanism that goes beyond economics to include social, equity and environmental values," Yoshinaga said.

A complex challenge

The agriculture sector faces a complex challenge: producing more food of better quality while using less water per unit of output; providing rural people with resources and opportunities to live a healthy and productive life; applying clean technologies that ensure environmental sustainability; and contributing in a productive way to the local and national economy.

This will not only require changes in attitudes, but also substantial and well targeted investments in infrastructure, modernization, institutional restructuring and upgrading of the technical capacities of farmers and water managers.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

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