Growing Water Scarcity Threatens Global Food and Environmental Security. 2.7 Billion People Can Face Water Shortages by 2025.

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Growing water scarcity threatens the food supply of nearly three billion people, as well as the health and productivity of major wetlands and other ecosystems around the world, say scientists for the 3rd World Water Forum.

“Increasing scarcity, competition and arguments over water in the first quarter of the 21st century will dramatically change the way we value and use water and the way we mobilise and manage water resources,” says His Royal Highness the Prince of Orange of the Netherlands, who will give the keynote speech to the Stockholm Water Symposium 2001 on August 13th. “Innovative ways of using this precious commodity have to be found to protect ecosystems and ensure food for the billions on this planet.”

The debate on the use of water is sharply divided. Agricultural scientists say that farm water use, especially irrigation, must be increased 15-20 percent in the coming 25 years to maintain food security and reduce hunger and rural poverty for a growing world population.

Environmental scientists, on the other hand, say that water use will need to be reduced by at least 10 percent to protect the rivers, lakes and wetlands on which millions of people depend for their livelihoods and to satisfy the growing demands of cities and industry. Many of these ecosystems have already been eliminated or severely damaged over the last decades.

“The truth is that both sides have a point”, says the Prince, who chaired the 2nd World Water Forum in The Hague in March of 2000. Decisions taken at that Forum are now being implemented and their results will be studied at the 3rd World Water Forum, to be held in Kyoto, Japan in March of 2003. “Unfortunately, both sides too often base their arguments on emotion and anecdotal evidence. There has to be a compelling analysis and dialogue on what irrigation and other water projects have done for agriculture and the environment.”

Currently, some 450 million people in 29 countries face water shortage problems. The entire Mediterranean region, including parts of southern Europe, North Africa and Middle East, Pakistan, parts of India and China, most of Sub-Sahara Africa and major regions in North and South America, especially the western United States, will face severe water shortages in the coming years. Northern Europe also faces serious problems.

By 2025, about 2.7 billion people, nearly one-third of the expected world’s population, will live in regions facing severe water scarcity, says a study by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, containing the most heavily populated and poorest regions of the world, will be most severely affected.

“If current trends continue, the shortage of water will extend well beyond the semiarid and arid regions,” says Professor Frank Rijsberman, IWMI Director-General. IWMI is headquartered in Colombo, Sri Lanka. “Expanding demand for water will drain some of the world’s major rivers, leaving them dry throughout most of the year. Urban centres will experience severe water shortages. But the rural poor will suffer the most serious consequences. Many already lack access to potable water and to the quantity and quality of water needed to grow food and generate income.”

“The protection of rivers and lakes is vital. Many people, especially in poor rural communities, depend directly on the food, timber and fish these ecosystems provide. Moreover, ecosystems play an important role in the regulation and provision of water”, says Ger Bergkamp, Freshwater Management Advisor of IUCN – The World Conservation Union. IUCN is headquartered in Gland, Switzerland, and has 42 offices world-wide. “Abstraction of more water and the conversion into agricultural land will destroy many of these ecosystems and threaten the communities that depend on them”.

“In developing countries, irrigation today accounts for over 80 percent of the water consumed, so that the debate among agriculturists and environmentalists on how to manage water for agriculture is of paramount importance to the very poor,” says William Cosgrove, Vice President of the World Water Council. Mr. Cosgrove is co-author with Dr. Rijsberman of the World Water Vision, which was presented to the 2nd World Water Forum. The World Water Vision aims to develop a massive public awareness of the risks of major water problems as a result of inaction, as well as encourage innovative thinking on how these problems can be tackled.

It is clear to both sides of the debate that more irrigation cannot be the only solution. Water infrastructure built in recent decades is decaying or becoming obsolete, mainly through silting up of reservoirs and crumbling of irrigation networks. Groundwater levels are falling and soils are rendered infertile by salinization. Surface and groundwater is polluted through excessive use of pesticides and fertilisers. For instance, estimates from China indicate that loss of agricultural production due to pollution amounts to roughly US$ 160 million per year. At the same time, even though local communities may be in harmony with their environment, the traditional use of ecosystems is unlikely to feed the billions of people in 2025.

Global Action Needed

To resolve the dilemma between agricultural production and environmental protection, a group of the world’s most influential nature protection, irrigation and food security organisations has created an international scientific and policy coalition — the Dialogue on Water, Food and Environment.

The group consists of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO); the Global Water Partnership (GWP); the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage (ICID); The International Federation of Agricultural Producers (IFAP); IUCN, The World Conservation Union (IUCN); the International Water Management Institute (IWMI); the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP); the World Health Organization (WHO); the World Water Council (WWC) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

“The question is: how will we use the available water to provide food security, environmental security, health, and livelihoods to a growing world population, in harmony with nature and water users such as industry?” says Rijsberman, who chairs the Dialogue coalition. “This is truly a global challenge. We need to grow more food with less water, meet the growing needs in cities and industry, protect ecosystems for their important role in the water cycle, and so on. It is a question of daunting complexity, but one that has to be answered in the coming years.”

The Dialogue aims to involve as many people and organisations as possible to find that answer. Water is everyone’s business, especially since one use of water has repercussions for another. Upstream irrigation impacts downstream fisheries and pollution can dramatically reduce tourism activities downstream. “We need to determine how this precious resource can be used best and reconcile the different needs. Discussions and negotiations between different users are the only way. The Dialogue will stimulate and facilitate such debates”, says Ger Bergkamp.

The Dialogue has set itself a five-year target to develop a consensus between the agricultural and environmental groups — on how water can be managed to feed the world and preserve the environment in the coming decades. The Dialogue group will mobilise world class water and environmental research to present practical policy options for governments who are bound by the dual imperative of feeding their populations and protecting natural ecosystems.

Where will this new knowledge come from? The Dialogue will gather information from the village level in rural communities on the best local options and innovations. Some 10 large-scale research projects on agricultural water use, environmental management, natural resources conservation and water resources will be done. This information will be discussed in regional and national platforms and distilled into a series of recommendations that will help countries plan strategies for ensuring food security and conserving natural ecosystems for their populations.

The ultimate goal of the Dialogue is to provide options for new technologies and practical activities for water management. But the choice and use of these technologies depends on national political priorities and local circumstances. Therefore, the Dialogue will encourage dialogues in countries and river basins around the world, where governments together with food and environmental institutions, non-governmental organisations and community representatives are invited to discuss their priorities and develop the appropriate solutions.

The Stockholm Water Symposium 2001 from Aug. 13-18 is one of a series of preliminary meetings over the next two years. All meetings contribute to the development of regional and local action plans to address the water crisis and how it affects food supplies, urban development, social and economic development and local and global ecosystems, along with water’s effect on health. The events lead up to the 3rd World Water Forum in Kyoto that will be held in 2003.

The World Water Council sponsors the World Water Forum every three years with a different host country. Dr. Mahmoud Abu Zeid, Egypt’s Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources and President of the World Water Council, emphasizes that the 3rd World Water Forum will highlight actions being taken to implement solutions to global water problems. Some 6,000 government officials, representatives of international organizations such as the World Bank and World Health Organization, along with water experts, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the media are expected to attend the 2003 meeting in Kyoto.

Taking the right decisions

The 20th century saw the need to provide enough food for a booming population. Growth in food production substantially outpaced the growth of population from 1960 to 2000. Over this period, the world’s average per capita per day calorie supply has increased by 23 percent, from 2250 Kcal in 1961 to 2780 Kcal in 1997. Globally, the number of malnourished people has been reduced by 160 million from the 1990 levels. Other benefits of using water for agriculture include food security and employment. But these achievements have often come at an environmental and social cost.

The Dialogue on Water, Food and Environmental Security aims to develop consensus on solutions for the agriculture-environment dilemma, both where it comes to the knowledge and information on the gravity of that dilemma, as well as to policy options and practical solutions. Below are examples that highlight some of the issues involved and possible solutions.

On a global scale, freshwater ecosystems provide an estimated value (1994) of $8.7 billion per year, a low estimate of what benefits are. In some cases, traditional use of these ecosystems may be preferred over irrigation. Economic valuation in the Hadejia-Jama’are floodplain in northern Nigeria shows that the traditional use of wetlands provides goods and services $12 worth per cubic meter of water. In comparison, irrigation in the same area yields $0.04 per cubic meter. Similarly, the use of one hectare of mangroves provides $30,000 per year to local populations in Tanzania. Still, the mangroves are cut to make way for rice production, for which the soil is not suited: after 5 years the soil is infertile and new mangrove has to be cut. Mangroves, also the birth ground for shrimp and fish on which the fisheries depend, require at least 20 years to recover.

Irrigation projects often do not generate the benefits they promise. Irrigation schemes in the Senegal River (Mauritania) and Waza River (Cameroon) have not met their targets for agricultural production by far. Yet, the reduced flows of fresh water have destroyed the downstream ecosystem in both instances. As an example: in Mauritania, an area once teeming with bird life, researchers counted exactly 2 birds in 1994. In both Mauritania and Cameroon, the local communities, fishermen and nomadic herders bore the costs: no fish or grazing grounds were to be found, and local communities were forced to emigrate from the floodplain. In the Tempisque basin in Costa Rica, large-scale citrus production had similar impacts on downstream ecosystems and users. At times it is too late, for instance for the dried-up Aral Sea. There, the overuse of water to produce cotton lead to a collapse in fisheries as the sea turned into a dustbowl.

Around 250 million people depend to a large extent on the Mekong River in Southeast Asia. In Vietnam alone, the size of the irrigated area has doubled over the past 20 years. The total irrigation system is nearly 4 million hectares with main focus on rice, and nearly one-third is said to be incomplete, deteriorated, or with insufficient water during the dry season. Other problems include threats to downstream fisheries (total fisheries value for the Mekong River is estimated at US$ 900 million) and the specific biodiversity of the Mekong river.

In Spain, groundwater exploitation from the La Mancha aquifer for the irrigation of 1200 km2 amounts to 50,000 to 60,000 m3 per year, 20,000 m3 more than the recharge rate. The groundwater is used to irrigate wheat, maize and vegetable farming. Groundwater levels are dropping (more than 5 metres in some locations). The Tablas de Daimiel have already seen an ecological disaster, which also impacted the tourism in the area. As a result, the Spanish government tried to reduce the pumping of groundwater, yet still more water is pumped than is added to the groundwater.

Working on solutions

Over extraction of groundwater also leads to saltwater entering inland, contaminating fresh water and rendering it useless. For instance, Florida, US, depends for 90 percent on groundwater. About 600 million liters per day could be withdrawn without further saltwater intrusion, yet the actual rate is 1700 million liters per day. This is the reason the state now uses aquifer recharge as the preferred method to decrease the danger. The multibillion-dollar restoration plan of the Everglades not only favors the ecosystem, its fisheries and tourism activities, but will also improve water quality and supply to farms and urban areas.

In both Mauritania and northern Cameroon, improved management of the dam and floodplain, by artificial flood releases, and development activities have restored the area and improved the livelihoods of local populations. Over 300 km2 of the floodplain are productive again and, with small-scale development projects, this has resulted in a sharp decline of poverty. Health was improved through 37 wells in villages that have reduced water-borne diseases by 70 percent. Improvements to and investments in the management of water resources, in collaboration with local government, organisations and communities, can thus favour irrigation and reduce the impacts on local populations and ecosystems. At the same time, there are several technological solutions on the production side that can help in saving water. Varieties of crops that need less water can be used and irrigation efficiency, for instance through drip irrigation, can be increased.

Rice requires a lot of water: it takes more than 2,000 tons of water to grow one ton of rice. New, water-saving techniques are being developed to grow rice by scientists at IWMI and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), and partners from China and other rice-growing countries. Such techniques are especially important for Asia, where about half of the irrigated land is planted in rice. More than half of the world’s population will depend on rice as their principal food source in 2025. In most of Asia, rice is not only the staple food, but also constitutes the major economic activity and a key source of employment and income for the rural population. The new rice techniques include wet seeding, intermittent rice irrigation, land levelling, improved weed management, and management of cracked soils.

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, known as CIMMYT, has created hardy new breeds of tropical corn that may increase harvests by 40 percent. Corn, more generally known as maize, has become one of the most important crops in both the developed and developing world. Maize grows easily in the temperate climates of North America and Western Europe, producing an average of 7 tons per hectare (2.47 acres), compared with an average of just 2.5 tons per hectare for farmers in the developing world. One-half of the 60 million hectares (148 million acres) planted in corn in the developing world is subject to periodic droughts. One of the new corn varieties was specifically developed to grow under drought conditions, with a much higher yield than traditional corn in the same conditions.

Many solutions to the water dilemma will be based on negotiations between water users. In Honduras, a fund was established in 1998 to protect the high-elevation cloud forests in Ecuador, that strip the air of moisture and thus provide the water supply to Quito city. Water consumption fees are negotiated with the different users and invested in the protection of the cloud forest against further expansions of agriculture and to maintain the water supplies. A similar example comes from the Netherlands, where land and water are managed based on negotiated agreements between different users in a specific area.

The above illustrate what the Dialogue aims to achieve. First, the Dialogue aims to establish the true impact of agriculture on the environment. Second, these examples highlight the complexity of water management since it relates to many aspects of life. The equitable distribution and use of water requires financial, legal and social innovations, as well as technological solutions. The Dialogue addresses both. In a 5-year process, it will build a bridge between agriculture and environment protagonists, with the aim of providing clean water, ensuring food, and protecting ecosystems for all people.

Water Allocation and Management Process (WAMP) in Queensland/ Australia

The Australian State of Queensland faces a widespread problem of how to make more water available to agricultural and municipal use, while preserving the environment and maintaining biodiversity in its rivers. The Department of Natural Resources has developed an innovative approach that combines participatory approaches; hydrological modelling, environmental assessment and market based instruments. The process consists of four steps. The process has recently been completed for the Fitzroy River basin and will now be extended to all river basins in Queensland.

  • Development of a hydrological model that allows simulating the river in its current and previous state and that also allows studying what-if questions. The model is calibrated to simulate hydrological impact of various development options.
  • A multi-disciplinary scientific panel assesses the impact of the change of hydrological regime on the biodiversity of the river.
  • The range of development options and the impact on the environment is presented to the affected communities or their representations.
  • Decisions water diversions and on-stream requirements are taken by local communities in the framework of the legislation of the State of Queensland.

Treadle Pump: New research shows how a low-cost irrigation technology can help millions in South Asia’s ‘poverty square’ escape poverty and build a new entrepreneurial spirit.

The treadle pump, a manually operated water pump used to irrigate small plots of land, has the potential to put $1 billion of new revenue directly into the hands of some of the poorest people in the world. This is one of the conclusions of a study by the International Water Management Institute. While the treadle pump is known and used in many parts of the developing world, reports of its impacts have been largely anecdotal and not validated through research. IWMI’s study documents the socio-economic impacts of the pump and evaluates its potential as a poverty reduction tool in Eastern India, Nepal Terai and Bangladesh-South Asia’s ‘poverty square’-home to 400 million of the world’s poorest people.

The study demonstrates that these low-cost pedal pumps can drastically reduce rural poverty by giving poor farmers, who cannot afford diesel pumps, access to the region’s abundant groundwater resources. This allows them to reap higher yields and grow higher value crops. Many using the pump are able to increase their income by 25 percent or more.

The main advantages of the treadle pump highlighted by this research are:

  • It is ideally suited to the needs of poor farmers-it’s cheap, easy to install and operate, and well suited to irrigating small parcels of land.
  • Average crop yields on treadle-pump irrigated plots are higher than those obtained by farmers using diesel pumps or other irrigation devices, largely because of more intensive cultivation.
  • More than 80 percent of those using treadle pumps felt that it has ‘increased their incomes’, and over 90 percent confirmed that it improved ‘their economic well-being.’
  • These pumps help at least 20 percent of the poor families that use it earn a net profit of $500-600 more per year-a significant increase given that more than 40 percent of the people in the region live on less than $1 a day (the World Bank’s standard indicator for extreme income poverty).
  • Treadle-pump farming offers a return on family labor 1.5 to 2.5 times the market wage rate.
  • Enterprising poor families are using the pump to make the transition from subsistence farming to small-scale commercial farming.
  • In the long run, treadle pump-adopter households are likely to perform better in terms of savings and capital accumulation, investment in agriculture, and education.
  • The spread of these pumps in a community improves wage rates and employment opportunities for the landless. Families using treadle pumps withdraw from the local labor market to work their own lands.

The Dialogue on Water, Food and Environment is a consortium of 10 international organizations: Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Global Water Partnership (GWP), International Commission on Irrigation & Drainage (ICID), International Federation of Agricultural Producers (IFAP), International Water Management Institute (IWMI), The World Conservation Union (IUCN), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), World Health Organization (WHO), Water Council (WWC),World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

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