UN hunger targets may increase water burden

More water is needed for food production if the MDG is to be met Copyright: Christian Lévêque, IRD

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If developing countries are to meet the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG) to eradicate hunger, cropland must continue to expand and massive amounts of additional water will be required for food production, according to a study.


However, researchers say countries in savannah regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa, could reduce their water requirement through better water policies and more efficient irrigation techniques.

"Research shows that the know-how, technologies, and management systems appropriate to local rural communities exist and could be successfully adapted and adopted if the right investment, capacity building efforts, policies and legal frameworks are put in place," the authors write.


One of the MDGs is to halve the proportion of people who suffer from hunger between 1990 and 2015.

Johan Rockström, from the Stockholm Environment Institute, Sweden, and colleagues analysed water requirements for food production in 92 developing countries ― including India, Kenya and Nigeria ― using data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

The study found that to meet food demands, the rate of cropland expansion would have to continue at a similar rate to the past 50 years ― around 0.8 per cent each year. The expansion of agricultural land is a major cause of damage to natural ecosystems.

The authors say that to meet the MDG target, 50 per cent more fresh water ― an additional 2,200 cubic kilometres per year ― must be used for food production than at present.

And if water production is not managed more efficiently ― with measures such as better use of local rains and more efficient measures in water productivity in rain-fed and irrigated agriculture ― the amount required will double by 2050, which the authors say would cause further degradation of ecosystems.

Hassan Moawad Abdel Al, former president of Alexandria’s Mubarak City for Scientific Research and Technology Applications welcomed the report, saying it "identified the problem as well as the solution and put the ball in the playground of African countries to act".

Abdel Al called for an African observatory to monitor food and water production and identify relevant technologies and policies.

He said this would encourage networking amongst African water scientists, biotechnologists and policy makers, and raise awareness about the role of water in food production and hunger eradication, as well as stepping up regional co-operation in water management.

While agreeing with the conclusions of the report, Seleshi Bekele of the International Water Management Institute in Ethiopia pointed out that water saving technologies are generally not accessible or affordable to local rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa.

He called for investment to "access, control and improve the management of the water".

The study was published online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Link to abstract in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Reference: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104, 6253 (2007)