No global water crisis - but many developing countries will face water scarcity

Agriculture has to produce more food per litre of water - Irrigation sector needs to be modernized - More investment needed
2 March 2003, Rome - Agriculture in developing countries will need to produce more crop per litre of water, promote equitable access to water and conserve precious water resources, FAO said today.

At the same time, farmers in developing countries will 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," 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 Near East, North Africa and parts of Asia are subject to water scarcity and stress.

Agriculture is by far the biggest water user, accounting for some 70 percent of all water withdrawals (industry: 20%, domestic: 10%). 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 2000 and 5000 litres.

"Unfortunately, the international debate on water problems tends to overlook the important role of agriculture, the biggest water user," said Kenji Yoshinaga, Director of the FAO Land and Water Development Division.

Improving water efficiency

"If a farmer in an arid developing country improves water efficiency on average by 1%, he or she will gain around 200 000 litres of freshwater per hectare and year. This amount of water would be sufficient to provide drinking water for more than 150 people," Yoshinaga said.

"If agriculture manages to increase water productivity, the pressure on precious water resources can be reduced and water can be released to other sectors. It is our hope that the World Water Forum in Kyoto will move the discussion on agriculture and water management up on the political and development agenda."

Growing needs and water use

FAO projects that world food production needs to be increased by around 60% 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.

It is expected that in 2030 agricultural water withdrawal for irrigation will be some 14 % higher than today, to meet food production needs. This represents an annual growth rate of 0.6%, down from 1.9% over the last 40 years. The developing countries are likely to expand their irrigated area from 202 million ha to 242 million ha by 2030.

Africa alone has a potential of 40 million ha for irrigation agriculture, it uses currently only 12 million ha.

Around 60 percent of the developing countries food crops are grown under agriculture relying on rain, which takes place 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.

Reliable and flexible water supply

Large national or state irrigation agencies have been able to irrigate extensive agricultural land. However, decision processes were rather top-down and bureaucratic, giving little flexibility to farmers and their needs, the report said.

Unreliable water deliveries have often been the main reason for farmers to turn to groundwater, leading in many regions to overexploitation. In many areas, over-abstraction of groundwater is severe and water levels are declining atrates of 1-3 metres per year.

One of the first priorities of modernizing water services should therefore be more reliable and flexible water delivery to respond to farmers demands, FAO said. "Ultimately, it is the users who must decide on the kind of service they require and partly pay for."

Irrigation technology needs to be upgraded, irrigation institutions need to become more service oriented and water users need to participate. In addition, 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.

Inexpensive, pro-poor technologies, like treadle or mechanical pumps for small-scale irrigation projects have proved to be successful in helping poor farmers to increase crop production and increase income, according to FAO.

Investments urgently needed

FAO pointed out that despite the need for more investments, current investment in water development and research has sharply declined. Investments would be needed to develop more productive crops, to improve agricultural practices and to support capacity building for farmers and water users. In addition, investments in roads and storage are required to make local markets for agricultural produce more effective. Here, private investment should play a bigger role, FAO said.

Farmers and households need stable land tenure and water use rights that must be matched by access to rural credit and finance and the dissemination of technology and good practices in water use.

Agriculture should shoulder its environmental responsibilities much more effectively by minimizing the negative environmental impacts of irrigated production. It should seek to restore the productivity of natural ecosystems.

"There is no single solution for maintaining food security when water is scarce," the FAO report said. "All sources of water (rainwater, canal water, groundwater and wastewater) are important. They can all be developed under the right conditions." The best combination of land, crop and water should respond to the characteristics of each ecosystem.


Erwin Northoff
Information Officer, FAO
(+39) 06 570 53105