Appropriate policies and good governance practices are needed to encourage and guide farmers to make better use of water says the Food and Agriculture Organization.
Agriculture is the biggest water consumer. On average it takes one tonne of water to produce one kilogram of wheat. Most of the water used by crops comes from the rain stored in the soil.
Irrigation covers 20% of cultivated land, but it represents 40% of the world's agricultural production. By securing access to water, it plays a strategic role in ensuring agricultural production.
The demand for food is not negotiable
"To satisfy the growing demand for food between 2000 and 2030, production of food crops in developing countries is projected to increase by 67%. At the same time, a continuing rise in productivity should make it possible to restrain the increase in water use for agriculture to about 14%," FAO Land and Water Division Director Kenji Yoshinaga said.
In the past, large-scale, state supported irrigation schemes contributed substantially to increasing agricultural production and enhancing the livelihood of farmers, while producing food at lower cost for the benefit of urban and rural populations alike.
However, they have been slow to adapt to a rapidly changing economic environment and the cost of their impact on the environment has been largely underestimated.
Many such systems are institutionally and technically ill equipped to respond to the challenge of increased water scarcity and the need for agricultural diversification, under the pressure of market changes and rapid globalization, according to FAO.
Responding to farmers' needs
"Modernization of irrigated agriculture, through technological upgrading and institutional reform, will be essential in ensuring much needed gains in water productivity," FAO water management expert Jean-Marc Faurès said.
"Irrigation institutions must respond to the needs of farmers, ensuring flexible and reliable delivery of water, increasing transparency in its management and balancing efficiency and equity in access to water," he explained.
"Agriculture is now coming under much more scrutiny as water resources are shrinking, populations are growing and competition between sectors is increasing. Substantial adaptations of agricultural policies are necessary."
In many cases, the cost of water development on the environment has been too high. Finding new ways for agriculture to alleviate its negative impacts is essential, not only to maintain the integrity and productivity of the ecosystems, but also to sustain the conditions under which agriculture can contribute to food security, poverty alleviation and economic growth.
"It is time to move towards a true valuation of water, through a mechanism that goes beyond economics to include social, equity and environmental values," Yoshinaga said.
This question is particularly relevant in Africa, where food security and poverty reduction remain immediate concerns. Africa needs to continue to invest in agriculture, and the NEPAD initiative which has chosen agriculture, infrastructure and markets to address the specific concerns of Africa, should further help in meeting these challenges, according to FAO.
A complex challenge
The agriculture sector faces a complex challenge: producing more food of better quality while using less water per unit of output; providing rural people with resources and opportunities to live a healthy and productive life; applying clean technologies that ensure environmental sustainability; and contributing in a productive way to the local and national economy.
This will not only require changes in attitudes, but also substantial and well targeted investments in infrastructure, modernization, institutional restructuring and upgrading of the technical capacities of farmers and water managers.
As part of it efforts to increase awareness of water issues and how they directly peope, The United Nation has laucnched "The Water for Life Decade" that will prompt opportunities to adapt agricultural and rural development policies, accelerate changes in irrigation governance and, through adequate water laws and institutions address the needs of rural populations throughout the world.
Water For Life
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