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Squeezing the Maximum Food From Each Drop of Water

NEW YORK, New York, April 21, 2004 (ENS) - Unless the world finds ways to produce more food using less water, the international community will face great difficulties in meeting the UN Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of undernourished people in the world by 2015, a new Swedish report warns. Some 840 million people around the world go to bed hungry at night, international agencies estimate.

water

Syrian farmer takes a drink of the water he will use to irrigate his fields. (Photos courtesy FAO)
Presented Tuesday to the UN Commission on Sustainable Development which is halfway through its two week long meeting at UN Headquarters, the report, entitled “Water – More Nutrition Per Drop” was initiated by the Swedish government. It contributes to the Commission's theme of work for this year and next - water, sanitation and settlement.

The report was produced through collaboration of international water experts from the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) and the International Water Management Institute.

“Water scarcity is a harsh reality that affects billions of people in many parts of the world,” said Swedish Minister for the Environment Lena Sommestad.

Water scarcity is linked to deadly food scarcity. The World Health Organization calls malnutrition “the silent emergency” and says children are its most visible victims, as malnutrition is a contributing factor in at least half of the 10.4 million child deaths each year.

“Attitudes to water development and management must be addressed and changed if we are to reduce the number of malnourished people," Sommestad said. "We need practical solutions that benefit poor farmers as well as global solutions that address trade barriers and agricultural subsidies.”

“An overriding challenge today is to identify the path towards sustainable consumption and production patterns and to design incentives and other policy measures that can help us achieve these goals,” says Professor Jan Lundqvist of SIWI, a main author of the report.

“Practical sustainable solutions mean balancing environmental, economic and social concerns," he said.

meat

Meat vendors at the market in Tirana, Albania
The report finds that today it is consumers – not producers – who are driving global food production, the opposite of the situation during the Green Revolution of the 1960s which brought increased yields through the use of improved seeds and agricultural chemicals.

With massive urbanization and increasing wealth, the Swedish report says, food preferences are changing and the demand for meat and dairy products is increasing.

Production of these high protein foods consumes enormous amounts of water. In developing countries agriculture accounts for 70 to 90 percent of available freshwater supplies.

It takes 550 liters of water to produce enough flour for one loaf of bread, the report estimates. This is a fraction of the up to 7,000 liters of water that is used in developed countries to produce 100 grams of beef.

SIWI Senior Scientist Malin Falkenmark says that astonishingly huge volumes of water are transformed into vapor during the food production process. “With prevailing land and water management practices, a balanced diet requires 1.2 million liters of water per person per year (3,287 liters per day) - 70 times more than the 50 liters per day used for an average households domestic needs,” she said.

The report identifies four "disturbing trends," among them the fact that the average calorie intake of people in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa is "far below" that required to “lead a healthy and productive life,“ while calorie intake in Western countries is above norms.

Mali

Women farmers in Mali irrigate cabbages in a vegetable garden with water drawn from a desert well. (Photo courtesy FAO)
An increasing number of rivers are "reduced to polluted drains," the report warns, because of the combined effect of heavy depleting water use for crop production, urban expansion and pollution.

Groundwater levels are declining rapidly due to overexploitation in densely populated areas of North China, India, Mexico and also in western countries.

And the degradation of land and water is increasing due to nutrient depletion, soil degradation, salinisation and seawater intrusion, the report finds.

A slower trend, but also disturbing, according to the report's authors, is the persistence of agricultural subsidies in developed countries, giving "a clear advantage to the rich over the poor in food production."

And people are slow to take up promising solutions that would increase water productivity, wealth and reverse environmental degradation.

The report identifies five new policy recommendations which, if followed at national and international levels, could greatly enhance humanity’s future food security and nutritional needs.

First, the report's authors recommend a change in thinking about water use. "Distinguish depleting water use from through-flowbased water use, where a part of the water supplied to the fi eld forms a return flow. This can potentially be reused by downstream water users."

Vietnam

Woman waters a communal garden in rural Vietnam. (Photo courtesy FAO)
Most important, is to increase the food output per drop of water depleted. "Farmers must be given the incentives to invest in and benefit from the tremendous water productivity gains that can be accomplished in both irrigated and rain fed agriculture."

These incentives must also be directed to the small and resource-poor farmers, for sustainability is to strive for production and consumption patterns that are also socially acceptable, the authors advise.

The report recommends the need to safeguard aquatic ecosystems against water depletion by identifying the minimum ecological service criteria for their protection. In river basins representing 15 percent of the land area of the world, river depletion has already exceeded the need for committed environmental flows to protect aquatic ecosystems such as wetlands.

“Between the late 1990s and 2020 world cereal demand will have increased by 40 percent but the world has a finite supply of water,” says Frank Rijsberman, director general of the International Water Management Institute. “Current production patterns are unsustainable. They involve large scale groundwater overexploitation and widespread river depletion which poses a major threat to biodiversity and aquatic ecosystems."

Rijsberman warned, "We are seeing ever increasing levels of environmental degradation and loss of production potential caused by water pollution from agricultural chemicals, water logging and salinization.”



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