There is enough water in the world's rivers to meet the demands of the expanding global population, but the rivers have to be better managed, according to a series of studies released today at the 14th World Water Congress in Porto de Galinhas, Brazil.
The key problem for water use is not scarcity but inefficient use of supplies because of poor governance and regulation, concludes a special issue of the Water International coordinated by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research's Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF).
The global population is expected to reach nine billion by 2050, and will need 70 per cent more food and about 50 per cent more electricity — of which hydropower is expected to supply about one third.
Some areas are experiencing water shortages already and there is concern over conflicts related to sharing of food and water resources.
"The failures are institutional and political," Simon Cook, leader of the CPWF Basin Focal Research Project, told SciDev.Net.
The studies analysed economic and demographic conditions; hydrology; agricultural systems and the influence of institutional factors on water availability and use in nine major river basins in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
They found that, in many areas, water production can be substantially increased without harming the environment. In Africa, for example, most cropland is rain-fed and only four per cent of available water is captured for crops and livestock.
"Somehow, we have to get more food without taking more water — and the most promising way is through improving rain-fed agriculture," said Cook.
But a lack of strong institutional arrangements limits access to resources, to finance, or the markets that prevent farmers from developing land to its full potential, the studies found.
To improve water use and food production, research and policies should consider agriculture, food systems and water as a holistic system, and balance the needs of all users.
Policies should also look beyond crops and take into account water's often neglected role in livestock farming and fisheries, which are important for local diets and livelihoods. For example, freshwater fisheries support 900,000 people in the Niger basin and 40 million people in the Mekong for at least part of the year.
Mark Redwood, leader of the Climate Change and Water programme at the International Development Research Centre, Canada, who was not involved in the study, told SciDev.Net: "The challenge of water in the short term is very much a political and social one".
With improved governance most parts of the world could meet their short and mid-term water needs, he said, but cautioned that was uncertain in the long term.
"All bets are off since global climate change is expected to create much more uncertainty with regard to the physical availability of water."
See below for a CPFW video about the project:
Water International 36 (1), 2011