Water is key to ending poverty, hunger in Africa, UN report says

Almost two-thirds of sub-Saharan Africa's rural poor could benefit from investment in water, a new UN report finds. The jointly commissioned report, Water and the Rural Poor, was presented by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) at the Sixteenth Annual UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD-16) recently...

by C.T. Pope, Circle of Blue

May 16, 2008 -- Almost two-thirds of sub-Saharan Africa's rural poor could benefit from investment in water, a new UN report finds.

The jointly commissioned report, Water and the Rural Poor, was presented by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) at the Sixteenth Annual UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD-16) on Monday.

"Insecure access to water for consumption and productive uses is a major constraint on poverty reduction in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa (SSA)," the report found.

With almost half of Africa's population suffering from water related diseases, the new assessment highlighted the potential for low-tech, highly localized, solutions to have a major impact the livelihoods of the rural poor.

Only 3 percent of sub-Saharan Africa's land is under irrigation systems -- elsewhere, crop production relies almost entirely on seasonal rainfall. Harvest rates rise and fall with unpredictable rain patterns.

Subsistence farmers, who account for nearly 80 percent of the agricultural activity in sub-Saharan Africa, are often the most vulnerable to seasonal variation in rainfall. The long-term impacts of such unpredictability make it impossible for these rural farmers to break from subsistence to small-scale production, thus reinforcing the cycle of poverty.

The report underlined the needs of these non-market oriented producers. "For millions of smallholder farmers, fishers and herders in SSA, water is one of the most important production assets, and securing access to and control and management of water is key to enhancing their livelihoods," the UN report said.

Beyond the subsistence farmer, the FAO and IFAD suggested solutions for each economic farm class in the region -- including, large-scale commercial farms, small market oriented farms, subsistence farms, and the highly vulnerable "survival" farms.

Each of these markets suffers from a variety of factors, including at the upper end, a lack of reliable fertilization options and irrigation systems; at the middle, a lack of healthy seeds and access credit; and at the lower ends, a loss of work from AIDS related issues and waterborne disease.

Stressing these "context-specific" solutions, the report divided sub-Saharan Africa into 13 livelihood zones -- based on land-type, major crops grown, and the prevailing economic situation of the areas. Each of the 13 zones faces unique problems for which localized solutions are best suited.

Modeling their suggestions on existing success stories in Africa, the report offered real-world examples to better inform policy makers and investors. It recognized the heterogeneous nature the water issues facing the region.

The report came as part of the CSD-16's focus on agriculture, drought and desertification; Africa; and water and sanitation. And, while the FAO stressed that water management alone would not solve the poverty and hunger crisis in Africa, it emphasized the potential for well-targeted water interventions to significantly improve the livelihoods of Africa's rural poor.

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Also see:
-- "South Africa urging water conservation"
-- "Nigeria sets pricetag for safe water"
-- "Michigan dips toe into Great Lakes Compact"
-- "China, Tibet, and the strategic power of water"
-- "Water's Urgent Message at the World Economic Forum"

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