Inefficient water use is ‘sleeping giant’ of global water challenge

Inefficiency, rather than water scarcity, is the greatest global water challenge according to new research published today, which says fears of water shortages are unfounded as major river basins contain enough resources to double food production if used properly.

The work released today (September 26) at the start of the XIV World Water Congress in Brazil claims, while water-related conflicts and shortages abound throughout the rapidly changing societies of Africa, Asia and Latin America, there is ‘clearly sufficient water’ to sustain food, energy, industrial and environmental needs during the 21st century.

The research was published in two special issues of the peer-reviewed journal, Water International (Volume 35, Issue 5 and Volume 36, Issue 1).

The report from the Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF) of the CGIAR finds the ‘sleeping giant’ of water challenges is not scarcity, but the inefficient use and inequitable distribution of the massive amounts of water that flow through the breadbaskets of key river basins such as the Nile, Ganges, Andes, Yellow, Niger and Volta.

CPWF director, Alain Vidal, said: “Water scarcity is not affecting our ability to grow enough food today.

“Yes, there is scarcity in certain areas, but our findings show that the problem overall is a failure to make efficient and fair use of the water available in these river basins. This is ultimately a political challenge, not a resource concern.

“Huge volumes of rainwater are lost or never used, particularly in the rain-fed regions of sub-Saharan Africa.

“With modest improvements, we can generate two to three times more food than we are producing today.

While Africa has the greatest potential to increase food production, researchers identified large areas of arable land in Asia and Latin America where production is at least 10% below its potential.

For example, in the Indus and Ganges, researchers found 23% of rice systems are producing about half of what they could sustainably yield.

The findings also present a picture of the increasingly political role of water management in addressing these competing needs, especially in dealing with the most pressing problem facing humanity today: doubling food production in the developing world to feed a surging population, which, globally, is expected to expand from seven to 9.5bn people by 2050.

The ten river basins that were studied include: the Andes and São Francisco in South America; the Limpopo, Niger, Nile and Volta basins in Africa; and the Ganges, Indus, Karkheh, Mekong, and Yellow in Asia.

Luke Walsh

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