* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.28 March 2014, Rome - Governments from the Near East and Africa today wrapped up a five day meeting on regional food security challenges pledging enhanced cooperation to tackle the critical issues of water management, food waste and building more resilient rural communities. In a final report, the 32nd FAO regional conference for the Near East and North Africa endorsed three key proposals tabled during the talks. The first is a regional strategy framework to bring countries together to improve food security and nutrition. At present, the number of undernourished people in the 19 countries of the Near East and North Africa remains high at nearly 43.7 million, or 10 percent of the population. Reducing those numbers while coping with a ongoing population growth, increasing scarcity of natural resources and climate change will require much closer inter-governmental cooperation. The framework endorsed today calls on governments to work together to address lagging productivity growth through increased investment in research and development; improvements to supply chain efficiencies that will reduce exposure to market volatility and other shocks; and strengthened safety nets and nutrition education programs. The creation of strategic regional cereal reserves to help offset spikes in commodity prices is another tool considered by the framework. "In today's globalized world, we cannot have food security in one country alone. We need to work together. That commitment, from all of us, is there. And that is the foundation we need to build a food-secure world," said FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva in remarks at the close of the conference. Enhanced cooperation on water, food waste In addition to the strategy framework, the group also green-lighted the expansion of FAO's regional Initiative on Water Scarcity beyond six pilot countries to the entire region. Under the initiative, countries will both concentrate on improving their water management practices at the national level as well as work closely together across borders to develop a collaborative approach to managing the vital natural resource. Per capita fresh water availability in the region has decreased by two-thirds over the past 40 years and is projected to decrease by 50 percent in the next 35 years if current trends in population growth and consumption patterns continue. Agriculture currently uses 85 percent of the region's available freshwater supplies. And the conference endorsed a regional initiative aimed at reducing food losses and waste. The Near East and North Africa region relies on imports to meet over 50 percent of its food needs, yet it loses up to a third of the food it produces and imports. FAO priorities The conference asked FAO to focus its efforts on helping countries address three priority issues: water scarcity, building resilience for enhanced food security and nutrition, and supporting small-scale agriculture. The Organization's budget allocation for activities in the Near East and North Africa for the 2014-2015 period amounts to $45.8 million, with estimated additional requirements of voluntary contributions totaling $95.5 million. Countries participating in the regional conference acknowledged the need to mobilize additional resources in support of food and nutrition security work, including through South-South Cooperation and partnerships, as well via a new FAO Regional Solidarity Trust Fund being established with an initial $2 million contribution by the government of Iraq. This week's Conference was attended by over 160 delegates, including 11 ministers, from 21 FAO members from the Near East Regional Group, as well as representatives of civil society, the private sector, other UN organizations and observer countries. The highest FAO governing body at the regional level, regional conferences are essential for ensuring the effectiveness of the Organization's work in the field and play a critical role in defining its work priorities.