Water Scarcity Threatens Food Security and Nutrition

Ahead of the UN 2023 Water Conference and following the 2nd WASAG (The Global Framework on Water Scarcity in Agriculture) International Forum, the Director of the Land and Water Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Li Lifeng, talks about one of the most pressing global challenges facing humanity: water scarcity.

1. How pressing is the issue of water scarcity in the world today?

Water scarcity is exacerbated by climate change and global population growth, resulting in increased competition for a dwindling and increasingly erratically available resource. Climate change results in unpredictable rainfall patterns with new extremes or peaks in droughts and floods, making it difficult to resort to conventional water-resources planning to meet increasing demand for water. Considering that ‘water is (key to) life’ and that water plays an important role in achieving a balance between economic efficiency, environmental sustainability and social equity, there is an urgent need to take the required actions. And this is best done in a concerted and collaborative manner.

2. To what extent does water scarcity impact agriculture and food security?

Water is a key input for agriculture production – different crops have different water requirements for optimal growth. And agriculture plays a vital role in the water equation, since it is responsible for around 70 percent of freshwater withdrawals it. Water scarcity means less water for agriculture production which in turn means less food available, threatening food security and nutrition. Considering that the world population will reach around 9 billion in 2050, it is clear that water scarcity is a real threat to food security since more food will have to be grown with limited water resources.

3. What are the types of water scarcity that regions can experience?

Typically, countries experience either physical water scarcity or economic water scarcity. Physical water scarcity is when the demand for water exceeds the water resources that are naturally available in the given region, either as surface or groundwater, with a given rainfall regime. Economic water scarcity often occurs in regions where, despite the abundance of water resources, there is no adequate infrastructure to make it available meet the different needs, such as electricity, industries and mines, domestic water supply and agriculture. People in arid and semi-arid regions, which experience physical water scarcity because of their natural predicament, have often developed ingenious solutions, such as taming water from distant sources, and using irrigation efficiency methods and other practices such as desalination of seawater or groundwater abstraction when available.

Due to climate change, which affects the seasonal patterns of rainfall, countries that relied solely on rainfed agriculture now experience temporal physical water scarcity due to irregular rainfalls that disrupt the usual planting seasons, causing recurring crop failures and leading to food insecurity. This makes it necessary to store water for supplemental irrigation. Addressing this climate change also requires novel approaches such as drought resistant crops or intercropping with cover crops (such as certain types of leguminous) that will prolong soil moisture for the targeted staple crops (such as maize) to continue to grow when the rainfall has stopped.

Increasingly, all regions will need to store water for (supplemental) irrigation, which is needed to compensate for the increasing deficit in the crop water requirements caused by erratic or unpredictable rainfalls.

4. What is FAO’s role in addressing the issue of water scarcity globally?

FAO plays an important role in addressing the issue of water scarcity globally and particularly in agriculture. For example at the regional level, the Regional Water Scarcity Initiative in the Near East (a region affected by physical water scarcity) has in several ways helped countries, including through water accounting and auditing, review their water resources and identify the potential for improving the efficient use of water for agriculture. This has been combined with a review of the policy and institutional environment that sustains water resources management.

Recently, the inter-Regional Technical Platform on Water Scarcity was established in an effort to maximize the synergies between the different regional initiatives with the support of a global oversight. FAO also hosts the Global Framework on Water Scarcity in Agriculture (WASAG) which brings together more than 70 partners representing countries and intergovernmental organizations, UN agencies, academia and research institutions, civil society, non-governmental organizations, private sector organizations and trade associations. Together, since 2017, they have worked on a voluntary basis to find collaborative solutions, making full use of FAO’s convening role.

At a recent Africa Group meeting in Rome, Permanent Representatives to FAO from the continent showed particular interest on how WASAG will impact Africa. What is your opinion on this?

The Africa Group of Permanent Representatives to FAO is right in recognizing that water management is an important issue for Africa: this is a continent where only 6 percent of available freshwater resources has been stored behind dams, exposing the continent to the vagaries of climate change with temporal physical scarcity. The 2nd WASAG International Forum that was organized in Praia, Cabo Verde, benefitted from the participation of African countries as well as the African Union and the Permanent Inter State Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS). The African Union is an active Partner of WASAG and participates in its working groups on water and nutrition and on sustainable agriculture water use. It has requested WASAG to facilitate training on the guidelines for pressurized irrigation, in response to the increasing need for (supplemental) irrigation in Africa. CILSS, on the other hand, through its Executive Secretary, Abdoulaye Mahamadou, has committed to organize future WASAG events together with the Government of Cabo Verde, in recognition of the pertinence of the topic and to collaborate in finding solutions that contribute to CILSS’s mandate.

Importantly, the Forum has adopted the Praia Call for Action. It has invited all member countries to become Partners of WASAG.

5. What are the goals of WASAG?

WASAG’s vision is of a world whose food systems are secure and resilient to increasing water scarcity in a changing climate. Its mission is to support measurable, significant progress on improving and adapting agricultural systems in conditions of increasing water scarcity and a changing climate, using the combined expertise and resources of the partners. WASAG objectives are to urgently address the following important and relevant work areas at international and country levels:

  • advocating for political prioritization;
  • cooperating on work programmes;
  • sharing and disseminating knowledge and experience;
  • developing new or improved solutions;
  • promoting sustainable and integrated water resources management;
  • building capacity of partners, countries and other stakeholders; and
  • contributing to consistent monitoring systems.

WASAG’s work contributes directly to the 2030 for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Goals (SDGs) as well as the Paris Agreement on climate change.

6. Do you believe that WASAG was successful this year? What are some of the concrete solutions that were proposed at the Forum?

This year, WASAG’s success can be illustrated by several milestones as well as by concrete solutions. During the Second International WASAG Forum, through The Praia Call for Action the participants:

endorsed the offer of the Government of Cabo Verde to make Praia the Capital city of WASAG. This is befitting because Cabo Verde is the typical illustration of the challenges of water scarcity and how its people are resilient in finding solutions, setting an example to emulate by other countries faced with water scarcity with similar or less harsh conditions.

adopted 17 actions, all pertinent and ranging from mobilizing political support, promoting national ownership while stepping up collaborative actions among countries and adopting international, cross sectoral collaboration and multidisciplinary approaches.

adopted specific actions on innovative financing mechanisms, farmer-led approaches including the youth, inclusive technologies, digital agriculture, coupling agriculture water management with food and nutrition and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), dryland agriculture, saline agriculture, coping with migration, etc.

7. What can the UN Water Conference 2023 help achieve?

The UN 2023 Water Conference is a call to action to every single person on the planet to accelerate change to solve the water crisis around the world. It marks a watershed moment that call governments and decision makers to take concerted actions and commitments to achieve the internationally agreed water-related goals and targets, including those contained in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It is the most important water event in a generation, the first event of its kind for nearly 50 years.

FAO will actively organize, co-partner and support more than 35 events at the Conference. More details are available at FAO at the UN Water Conference.

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