The State of Food and Agriculture is FAO ‘s main annual publication and in its 2020 version it focuses on explaining what they are and how we can overcome the challenges related to water in agriculture. The full report consists of 236 pages, while the summary presents 28 pages only.
SOFA 2021 is closely related to Sustainable Development Goal 6 , which consists of ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, an issue on which little progress is seen. The FAO estimates that irrigated agricultural production is responsible for more than 70% of world water withdrawals, despite the fact that rainfed agriculture accounts for the majority of world food production.
It is also estimated that 1.2 billion people live in agricultural areas that suffer from very high levels of water stress that affect irrigated areas or a very high frequency of droughts that affect pastures and rainfed croplands. In addition, approximately 11% of total cropland and 14% of grasslands suffer from recurring droughts, while more than 60% of irrigated cropland suffer from high water stress.
The report offers suggestions on the lines of action at 3 different levels : 1) technical and management, 2) institutional and legal, and 3) general regulations.
At the technical and managerial level, a key challenge is to harness the potential of rainfed agriculture by improving water management, which will require more drought-tolerant varieties and innovative management strategies, as well as new irrigation systems. in the case of irrigated agriculture.
At the institutional and legal level, a fundamental pillar will be to ensure water and land tenure, which, in combination with trade mechanisms and water pricing, can create incentives for efficient use of water resources.
At the general regulatory level, coherence and coordination of public policies related to water resources will be essential, both between the different sectors and places and within each one of them.
1. What do we know about the water deficit and water scarcity in the world?
If we want to achieve zero hunger then we need sustainable food systems , in which the sustainable and equitable management of water resources is a fundamental element, although the problems to overcome are of great dimensions.
Food security and nutrition are increasingly threatened by water scarcity, the imbalance between supply and demand for fresh water, and water quality problems, issues that have serious repercussions on food systems.
It must be considered that the persistent and severe droughts, accentuated by climate change, are causing serious water deficits in rainfed agriculture, so that the two main water challenges that affect agricultural and food production are the water deficit in rain-fed agriculture and water shortages affecting irrigated agriculture.
It is for them that the challenges posed by water shortages and deficits must be addressed in tandem with the anticipated effects of climate change.
An estimated 1.2 billion people, roughly 1/6 of the world’s population, reside in agricultural areas with severe water availability limitations, of which 520 million live in South Asia and 460 million in East and Southeast Asia.
In Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, North America and Oceania only between 1% and 4% live in areas with extreme limitations of water availability.
Another statistic indicates that 128 million hectares that represent 11% of the rainfed cropland, and 656 million hectares that represent 14% of the grazing lands, suffer frequent droughts, while 171 million hectares, is In other words, more than 60% of irrigated farmlands are subject to high or very high water stress.
2. What innovations and investments are needed for a sustainable and productive use of water?
The challenge posed by the water deficit and scarcity requires technologies and strategies for integrated water resources management, as better water management strategies , if combined with agronomic practices such as the use of improved varieties, will be essential to reduce risks. water resources and increase agricultural potential.
However, the incentives of farmers to adopt water management strategies and modify their behavior regarding the use and management of water will depend on the level of accessibility of water resources, the magnitude of the deficits and water scarcity, the level uncertainty in a changing climate context, as well as the availability and cost of other inputs, including labor and energy.
Of course, not all water risks can be addressed only by farmers, because in some cases the intervention of the public sector may be necessary, for example, in the form of investments, information and support to farmers, so that they overcome the obstacles that prevent them from adopting the strategies and practices mentioned.
In general, there are two strategies to increase yields in rainfed agriculture: 1) increase the uptake or collection of water and its infiltration in the root zone and 2) conserve water by increasing the absorption capacity of the plant or reduced root zone evaporation and drainage losses.
Estimates indicate that almost 20% of the world’s cropland is suitable for the use of water harvesting and conservation strategies, but this will require investment in new irrigation systems or in the rehabilitation and modernization of existing ones. although the modernization of irrigation must be preceded by public policy instruments.
The vegetation strips can also contribute to retention of excess nutrients and pollution reduction, and in situations where water supply is limited is gaining momentum innovation unconventional sources of water such as wastewater treated or desalinated water.
Around the world there are some 16,000 desalination plants that produce about 100 million cubic meters per day, thanks to the increase in demand, technological advances and the drastic drop in costs, which makes the use of this more viable than ever. technical for agricultural activities, especially for the production of high value crops.
3. If there are effective solutions within our reach, why are they not being adopted?
The great limitation to improve on the issue of water is that a complex collaboration between different stakeholders is required, one of the greatest challenges being to include and safeguard the interests of groups with less power and influence, but who depend on ecosystem services. related to water.
In addition, effective water management strategies must be based on a better understanding of the amount of water that exists, how it is used and whether current use patterns are sustainable, but the limitation is that there is still little data available, since more investment is needed to obtain specific information by region or country.
It should also be noted that the overall cost of water accounting and auditing programs varies greatly, but advances in remote sensing and measurement technologies, as well as a number of freely accessible global and regional databases, they reduce costs and facilitate the exchange of information. Although improved irrigation technology, in terms of conduction, bypass and metering, can improve compliance through better control.
Another key point is that well-defined water rights can empower users and increase the economic value of the resource, while offering farmers an incentive to invest in new technologies and reduce resource degradation.
The detail with the issue of water rights is that it is possible that water sellers exercise monopoly power in some places, so that from the point of view of equity, water markets will only be positive to the extent the initial allocation system on which they are based.
In addition, water prices can help prevent the excessive use, depletion and deterioration of the quality of water resources, although yes, the rise in water prices should occur over several years, in order to give farmers time to adjust.
One issue that must be clear is that public policies on the management of water resources for agriculture have remained focused on irrigation, which has resulted in limited investment and innovation in rainfed agricultural areas.
In other words, planning of water resources should promote investment options from rainfed agriculture to irrigation, and encompass water management in rainfed areas, which has repercussions in the catchment areas and river basins.
For this, the support of the public sector is necessary, through investments in infrastructures and the subsidization of water collection and conservation technologies, to help mitigate the effects of droughts. It is also necessary to encourage the participation of representatives of the communities, as well as local and indigenous institutions, which can help to guarantee the effective design of interventions and the management of natural resources.
For this, it will be essential to guarantee the coherence of the policies between the different sectors and regulatory areas, this being the first condition to improve the management of water resources. Another need is to increase policy coherence between different agricultural subsectors, as the impact of policies is often uneven across agricultural subsectors, with a tendency to favor irrigated agriculture.
Payments for environmental services to farmers or landowners who agree to manage their lands or watersheds in favor of environmental protection should not be ruled out, which can also help ensure the proper valuation of well-functioning ecosystems.