Agri water use needs to be more sustainable

03 December 2020 | Agriculture

ELLANIE SMIT

WINDHOEK



Intensifying water constraints threaten food security and nutrition, and urgent action is needed to make water use in agriculture more sustainable and equitable.

This is according to the 2020 State of Food and Agriculture report launched by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

This year's report presents new estimates on the pervasiveness of water scarcity in irrigated agriculture and of water shortages in rain-fed agriculture.

It provides guidance on how countries can prioritise policies and interventions to overcome water constraints in agriculture.

According to the report, more than 21.6 million hectares of rain-fed cropland in Namibia are subject to frequent droughts. This area has a rural population of 532 000 people and an urban population of 74 000.



Three billion people at risk

The report said globally, more than three billion people live in agricultural areas with high to very high levels of water shortages and scarcity, and almost half of them face severe water constraints.

Population growth is a key driver of water scarcity as it implies rising demand for this precious natural resource.

Consequently, the annual amount of available freshwater resources per person has declined by more than 20% in the past two decades.

Improved water management supported by effective governance and strong institutions, including secure water tenure and rights, and underpinned by sound water accounting and auditing will be essential to ensure global food security and nutrition.

“With this report, FAO is sending a strong message: Water shortages and scarcity in agriculture must be addressed immediately and boldly,” said FAO director-general Qu Dongyu.

“Water is essential, not only for agriculture, but for livelihoods and civilisations to continue.”



Paths for action

Paths for action range from investing in water-harvesting and conservation in rain-fed areas to rehabilitating and modernising sustainable irrigation systems in irrigated areas.

The report said these must be combined with best agronomic practices, such as adopting drought-tolerant crop varieties and improved water management tools.

It also noted that the rural poor can benefit substantially from irrigation and endorses its cautious expansion.

Between 2010 and 2050, harvested irrigated areas are projected to grow in most regions of the world and to more than double in sub-Saharan Africa, potentially benefitting hundreds of millions of rural people.

In some cases, small-scale and farmer-led irrigation systems can be more efficient than large-scale projects, which is a promising path for sub-Saharan Africa, where surface and underground water resources are comparatively undeveloped and only 3% of cropland is equipped for irrigation - and where expanding small-scale irrigation can be profitable and benefit millions of rural people, it said.

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