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OPINION: Coping with water scarcity requires holistic approaches

Thursday, 14 November 2019 10:45 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Feeding the world while sustaining our natural resources base will require much more coordination

Eduardo Mansur is the Director, Land and Water Division at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and Olcay Unver is the Senior Water Advisor at the FAO. 

Coping with water scarcity is one of the fundamental global challenges we face in achieving sustainable development. This is not just a physical problem, it is also caused by institutional, economic, and infrastructure-related constraints and is linked to pressures that emanate from population growth and mobility, socio-economic development, dietary changes, and climate change. Since 2012, the World Economic Forum has put water security at the top of the agenda as one of the top five greatest risks facing the world. By 2050, if we continue to use water in the way we are doing, global demand could exceed supply by over 40%, which would put at risk 45% of global GDP, 52% of the world’s population, and 40% of grain production. But this is not just some future problem. Farmers are already abstracting one third of all freshwater withdrawals for irrigation from groundwater, and most major aquifers are being pumped beyond the threshold of physical sustainability.

The United Nation’s 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda calls for solutions that require fundamental changes in the way societies produce, protect, and consume. It recognises the interdependencies across the various development sectors, it discourages traditional fragmented or ‘silo’ approaches to resource management and encourages integration and cooperation as the most effective means of making best use of limited natural, financial, and social capital. Water is at the heart of this agenda. It flows through all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDG 6 is the ‘water and sanitation goal’, which the UN Deputy Secretary General described as the ‘docking station’ for all aspects of sustainable development.

Agriculture is seen as one of the main causes of water scarcity. It accounts for 70% of all global freshwater withdrawals (for irrigation, livestock, and aquaculture) and has acquired a reputation for inefficiency. But there are two sides to this coin. On the plus side, agricultural sectors are seen by many as the sectors where significant water savings can be made. So, how can this be achieved?

Alongside water for municipalities, industry, and the environment, agriculture must play its part in integrated water resources management (IWRM), but it must also put its own house in order. Agricultural sectors are highly fragmented and largely organised around commodities, such as plants, dairy, meat, and fish. They are a complex mix of rainfed and irrigated cropping, livestock farming, and aquaculture, with highly variable water demands from time to time and place to place, and a dependency on a changing climate that impacts all aspects of production. In past times, when natural resources, like water, land, and soils were more plentiful and demands were fewer, a commodity focus made sense and fragmentation did not create too many problems. It offered a somehow sensible way of managing specialised support and marketing services to farmers, growing more food, reducing hunger, and driving economic growth.

Natural resources are no longer plentiful and as problems grow, stakeholders are recognising the need for more coordinated efforts within the agricultural sectors to avoid potentially inefficient use of limited natural resources. This includes coordinated planning of water, land, and soil resources across agricultural sectors; they are inseparable and symbiotic yet have historically been managed as separate entities even though planners and farmers alike know well that every land-use and soil decision has a ‘water footprint’.

Resource scarcity, be it water, land, or soil, is now beginning to drive changes in the way we manage them in the future. Various sector-based organisations have long recognised the threat through their own particular perspective and some are now showing signs of moving from acknowledging the need to putting plans into practice to reach the common desired goal of sustainable development. Examples of integrated approaches focus not on specific resources but on wider objectives such as conserving the landscape, developing ecosystem-based agriculture, and nature-based solutions, all of which include sustaining farming livelihoods and strong elements for coping with water scarcity. The nexus approach, and particularly the water-energy-food (WEF) nexus offer good options for optimizing sustainable resource use and management.

Successful examples of holistic approaches can encourage others overcome silos. The Kagera river basin, shared by Burundi, Rwanda, the United Republic of Tanzania, and Uganda is an example of a basin-wide integrated landscape approach to sustainable development, implemented to restore degraded lands, enhance agro-biodiversity, and sustainably increase agricultural production while conserving riverine wetlands, water and pasture quality, positively impacting the livelihoods of some 20 million mostly rural residents, across sectoral and national boundaries. Another example is a nexus approach implemented to analyze the intersectoral issues and possible solutions for the management of the Sava River Basin shared by Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. Solutions included institutions, information, instruments, infrastructure as well as international coordination and cooperation.

Such broad collaborative efforts provide opportunities to bring Sustainable Development Goals and climate change objectives together to maximise overall benefits and resource efficiencies and tap into broader funding opportunities. Collaboration, not fragmentation must be the way forward.