International water experts press for water conservation in food production

Experts at a UN sustainable development meeting warned that more must be done to use less water while concurrently producing more food.

April 20, 2004 -- In a report released recently at the 12th meeting of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD 12), experts warn that if more is not done to use less water while concurrently producing more food, the international community will face great difficulties in meeting the UN Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of undernourished people in the world by 2015.

The report, entitled "Water - More Nutrition Per Drop" (Adobe Acrobat Download, 2 MB) was initiated by the Swedish Government and was produced through a unique collaboration composed of leading international water experts from the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI).

"Water scarcity is a harsh reality that affects billions of people in many parts of the world," says Lena Sommestad, Swedish Minister for the Environment. "Attitudes to water development and management must be addressed and changed if we are to reduce the number of malnourished people. We need practical solutions that benefit poor farmers as well as global solutions that address trade barriers and agricultural subsidies".

As 840 million people remain undernourished across the world, the report highlights how the challenge to find sustainable solutions towards feeding the world's population is an issue that requires urgent attention from the international community. It identifies five innovative policy-oriented recommendations which, if followed at national and international levels, could greatly enhance humanity's future food security and nutritional needs.

The recommendations include finding ways to produce more food using less water and ensuring that these new technologies and methods are made widely available to groups that range from farmers to policy makers. Another recommendation highlights the need to identify and influence unsustainable food production and consumption patterns that require excessive water usage.

One of the key findings of the report is that today, unlike during the "Green Revolution" of the 1960s, it is consumers - not producers - who are driving global food production. With massive urbanisation and increasing wealth, food preferences are changing with significant increases in the demand for meat and dairy products. It takes 550 liters of water to produce enough flour for one loaf of bread. This is a fraction of the up to 7000 liters of water that is used in developed countries to produce 100 grams of beef.

Improving the quality of nutrition, per drop of water, in food produced, is also addressed in the Report. The World Health Organization (WHO) calls malnutrition "the silent emergency" and says children are its most visible victims, as malnutrition is an accomplice in at least half of the 10.4 million child deaths each year.

At the other end of the malnutrition scale, obesity is one of today's most blatantly visible - yet most neglected - public health problems, particularly in the developed world. Trends in imbalances in the "food basket" can also be seen in developing countries, especially its expanding megacities and urban areas.

Measures are needed on many levels if millions of people should not suffer from an array of serious health disorders.

"An overriding challenge today is to identify the path towards sustainable consumption and production patterns and to design incentives and other policy measures that can help us achieve these goals," says Professor Jan Lundqvist of SIWI, a main author of the report. "Practical sustainable solutions mean balancing environmental, economic and social concerns".

Production of food is a highly water-consuming activity. In developing countries agriculture accounts for 70-90% of available freshwater supplies. SIWI Senior Scientist Malin Falkenmark says that astonishingly huge volumes of water are transformed into vapour during the food production process. "With prevailing land and water management practices, a balanced diet requires 1,200,000 litres of water per person per year (3287 liters per day) - 70 times more than the 50 liters per day used for an average households domestic needs," she said.

The report recommends the need to safeguard aquatic ecosystems against water depletion by identifying the minimum ecological service criteria for their protection. In river basins representing 15 percent of the land area of the world, river depletion has already exceeded the need for committed environmental flows to protect aquatic ecosystems such as wetlands.

"Between the late 1990s and 2020 world cereal demand will have increased by 40% but the world has a finite supply of water," says Frank Rijsberman, Director General of IWMI. "Current production patterns are unsustainable. They involve large scale groundwater overexploitation and widespread river depletion which poses a major threat to biodiversity and aquatic ecosystems. We are seeing ever increasing levels of environmental degradation and loss of production potential caused by water pollution from agricultural chemicals, water logging and salinisation."

The report also stresses the need to identify unsustainable agricultural subsidies and trade barriers. In water scarce regions, food imports may ensure food and nutritional security regardless of the possibility to produce the food domestically.

However, the ability to increase import is limited by poverty and lack of foreign exchange. Agricultural subsidies and trade barriers are effectively reducing a desirable pattern of trade in food commodities.

There is a need to identify unsustainable agricultural subsidies and trade barriers and establish to what degree free trade can help to solve regional food deficiency problems.

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