World must improve water use to feed itself, say scientists

Water management practices worldwide must change drastically if humanity is to grow enough crops to feed itself over the next 50 years, according to a comprehensive assessment of water use in agriculture - the first of its kind.

Water scarcity and agriculture are closely connected, as food production uses up to 70 times more water than is needed for drinking, cooking, washing and bathing, scientists who conducted the International Water Management Institute study said.

Having looked at how we have managed water over the last 50 years and the present state of the resource worldwide, the international team of hundreds of experts who conducted the study found that a third of the world’s population – or over 2 billion people – already suffers from water scarcity.

For about one in four people worldwide this is because they do not have the infrastructure to extract water from the earth, which the report’s authors term “economic water scarcity.” Another 1 billion live in dry areas where there is simply not enough water.

“The last 50 years of water management are no model for the future when it comes to dealing with water scarcity,” said Frank Rijbsberman, IWMI director general.

“We need radical change in the institutions and organizations responsible for managing our earth’s water supplies and a vastly different way of thinking about water management – whether the individual concerned is an engineer or a donor agency or a farmer in Malawi,” he said.

But if lessons are learnt from the last half a decade and the available science and technology used, improvements in the efficiency of agricultural water management can produce spectacular benefits for the global poor.

“More water is needed for poverty alleviation, for food production, for cities and industries, yet taking more water from our ecosystems threatens our life support system,” said David Molden of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI).

Faced with a growing population and dwindling water resources, humanity has three choices – to irrigate drylands, turn humid forests into fields, or improve on the current ratio of water used to food produced.

The IWMI experts unsuprisingly call for the third option as the only sustainable one – and list ways that this can be achieved. Semi-humid African savannahs, in particular, are pinpointed as areas where substantial benefits can be achieved with relatively little effort, with a combination of the right choice of crop and simple infrastructure.

IWMI’s advice to all the ‘managers’ of the earth’s water resources also includes:

· Seeing water as a finite resource

· Getting water to poor people through affordable small-scale technologies

· Increasing water productivity – the use of higher yielding crop varieties

· Using rain-fed alongside irrigated agricultural techniques

· Managing water with several ecosystems in mind

· Improving state governance of water

The IWMI study was published as part of World Water Week, an international event linking water and development, taking place in Stockholm this week.

Further information can be found on the IWMI website.

Goska Romanowicz

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie