Don’t put irrigation above drinking water

Water Pump_Chris Stowers_Panos
Copyright: Chris Stowers/Panos

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  • Population growth and climate change will put pressure on water like never before
  • Prioritising irrigation for food security risks leaving urban populations dry
  • Water-efficient farming technologies could mean there is enough to go round

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Water policies and technologies aiming to help meet sustainable development goals (SDGs) must rebalance the attention given to agriculture over drinking water, a report issued last week (15 May) has found.
The Water for Food Security and Nutrition report was commissioned by the Committee for World Food Security, a UN body based in Rome. It makes eight recommendations, saying that better access to technologies could make water use in farming more efficient, as well as improving access to drinking water for disadvantaged people.
The report warns that population growth and climate change will put more strain on freshwater supplies, particularly in low-rainfall areas like Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. Much of the available groundwater in these regions has already been extracted, with 80–90 per cent being used for irrigation in agriculture, leaving lakes and groundwater at historically low levels. 
Using techniques such as rain-fed agriculture, and introducing better technologies to harvest and store water, and reduce losses through evaporation, could go some way towards ensuring enough drinking water remains, the report says.

“Agriculture uses 70 per cent of the world's freshwater extraction, which means improvements in efficiency could make a big difference.”

 Toby Bruce, Rothamsted Research

Toby Bruce, a crop scientist at Rothamsted Research, an agricultural research institute in the United Kingdom, says water-efficient crop varieties and agricultural systems will form part of the solution.
“Agriculture uses 70 per cent of the world's freshwater extraction, which means improvements in efficiency could make a big difference,” Bruce says.
However, conflict between using water for agriculture or for drinking would remain, according to Raul Pacheco-Vega, a geographer at the Centre for Economic Research and Education in Mexico.
He says that the concept of water for food security and nutrition needs to be extended beyond agriculture, as the existing focus on farming could leave urban communities without enough.
The report finds that though there is sufficient global freshwater to fulfil humanity’s needs, it is not evenly spread, leaving some of the poorest people vulnerable to water scarcity. The authors highlight the “drudgery and burden of water collection and disposal” that disproportionally affects poor people and women who live far from water.
Lyla Mehta, a sociologist from the Institute of Development Studies in the United Kingdom and lead author of the report, says that the informal and customary water rights of women must be more often recognised.

“These rights are considered to belong to the 'male head of household' creating problems and gender biases,” Metha says. “Providing men and women with equal resources would go a long way in enhancing food and nutrition security.”
To achieve this, countries must spend more on technical solutions, and address complex economic, legal and political barriers within and between nations, the report states.
But Shannon Orr, a political scientist from Bowling Green State University in the United States, wonders how all the SDGs related to water can be achieved.
“With so many goals and separate targets, there is a very real danger that everything, and thus nothing, becomes a priority,” Orr says.


Water for Food and Nutrition, United Nations (May 2015)