In a report released in Rome on Wednesday the FAO warned that agriculture had to produce more food per litre of water and irrigation sectors needed to be modernised or developing countries would face water scarcity and consequent food shortages.
At the same time, farmers in developing countries would face increasing competition for scarce freshwater resources from industry and domestic users, FAO said in a new study "Unlocking the water potential of agriculture" published on the eve of the World Water Forum in Kyoto (16-23 March 2003).
"While there is no global water crisis, the serious water and food security problems in some developing countries and regions need to be urgently addressed," the FAO said.
"If we want to avoid a future food crisis, we need more investments to achieve productivity gains in agriculture in developing countries using existing and new technologies. Political will is needed to create the enabling environment for increasing water productivity."
One in five developing countries will face water shortages by 2030, the FAO warned.
Agriculture is by far the biggest water user, accounting for some 70 percent of all water withdrawals (industry: 20 percent, domestic: 10 percent). While the daily drinking water needs of humans are very small - four litres per person - the water required to produce a person's daily food is much higher: it varies between 2,000 and 5,000 litres.
FAO representative in Malawi, Louise Setshwealo, told IRIN there was a regional need for "better and more efficient use of water resources".
Setshwealo said: "Malawi ... has a lot of water that can be used for food production, what we are trying to do is get small and large scale farmers to use water more effectively. Because the rate at which we are harvesting water for irrigation should be in line with the rate at which water resources are being replenished."
The FAO said that should a farmer in an arid developing country improve water efficiency on average by 1 percent, he or she would gain around 200,000 litres of freshwater per hectare every year - enough to provide drinking water for more than 150 people.
World food production needs are projected to increase by around 60 percent to feed an additional 2 billion people by 2030. Agricultural water use will be a key element for increasing food production, especially in many developing countries, where currently around 800 million people are suffering from chronic hunger.
As a result agricultural water withdrawal for irrigation would be some 14 percent higher than today.
Presently, around 60 percent of developing countries' food crops were grown under rain-fed agriculture on 80 percent of the arable land.
"Irrigation agriculture produces 40 percent of the food crops on 20 percent of arable land. Much of the future food production increase in developing countries will come from irrigated land. Water-saving technologies should be promoted. Drip irrigation, for example, which puts water where it is needed, when correctly applied, is more efficient than flooding fields and using sprinklers," the FAO added.
Inexpensive, pro-poor technologies, like treadle or mechanical pumps for small-scale irrigation projects had proved to be successful in helping poor farmers to increase crop production and increase income, the organisation noted.
Setshwealo said this was particularly true of Malawi and other countries in the southern African region.
"[While] we have Lake Malawi and several rivers ... rainfall fluctuates from year to year, so government and its partners are encouraging farmers to go into smallholder irrigation. [Which was] very important not only for Malawi but for the rest of the [southern African] region. We have countries that do not have as much water resources as Malawi, it is important how they use these water resources ... it's really about the efficient and sustainable use of the resources that we have," she said
Capacity building, the training and education of farmers, was very important. "There are technologies that are available like drip irrigation, but we need to get our farmers trained to that level so they can apply those methods correctly to avoid wastage," Setshwealo added.
There was also a need to urgently prioritise policies and strategies to avoid water wastage. "We need them locally and at international level. Lake Malawi for example is shared with Mozambique and Tanzania, we need to come up with effective agreement on how we use this shared resource," Setshwealo said.
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