Ama Kudom-Agyemang
March 24, 2012

Whenever water is mentioned, what comes to the minds of most people is availability and access. Water availability and access mean a lot to everybody, particularly children who bear the brunt of water scarcity in every community; whether in the town of Neves, Lemba on the island of Sao Tome or in the hither land town of Jema in the Kinatmpo South District of Ghana’s Brong Ahafo Region. The issues of water are not related to availability and access for humans only, but also for every economic endeavor such as agricultural production and industry as well as for nature.

Against the backdrop of the Gulf of Guinea of equatorial Atlantic Ocean, this little girl fetches water from a pipe in the Neves Community, Lemba District on the island of Sao Tome and Principe (picture taken by the writer)

Scientific predictions indicate that the story of food security in the 21st century is likely to be closely linked to the story of water security. In the coming decades the world’s farmers will need to produce enough food to feed many millions more people, yet there are virtually no untapped, cost-effective sources of water for them to draw on as they face this challenge. Moreover, farmers will face heavy competition for this water from households, industries, and environmentalists.

It is to emphasise the importance of water as one of the basic essentials of life required for human existence and the sustenance of all major life forms on earth, that last Thursday, March 22nd, 2012, the international community celebrated World Water Day (WWD). The Day’s celebration was initiated at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and adopted by the UN General Assembly to create global awareness on water related issues.

Each annual celebration of WWD is utilised to highlight issues on a specific water related subject. This year’s focus which was on “Water and Food Security,” drew international attention on the relationship between water and food security. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Natural Resources Department coordinated the celebration through its Land and Water Division, and on behalf of UN-Water members and partners.

Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life, and water is one of the fundamental input factor to food production. Research indicates that there is enough food today to feed the world. Yet, despite this, 15 % of the world population (854 million people) is undernourished, and with continuing population growth, rising incomes and urbanization, food demand will roughly double in the next fifty years. Over this period the world’s water will have to support the agricultural systems that will feed and create livelihoods for an additional 2.7 billion people. It is predicted that by 2030 the world will need to produce 50 per cent more food and energy, together with 30 per cent more available fresh water, whilst mitigating and adapting to climate change.

FAO sources say that agriculture is by far the largest user of water world-wide, at around 70% of total supplies. The FAO also predicts that the agricultural sector will increasingly need to compete with the world’s growing cities for water. As a result, it is unlikely that water will remain a ‘free’ commodity in the future. This view is shared by International Water Management Institute (IWMI), which has predicted that demand for land will progressively increase, both for food production and linked to the urbanisation and energy trends. The Colombo, Sri Lanka based IWMI is part of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which focuses on improving how water and land resources are managed, with the aim of underpinning food security and reducing poverty while safeguarding vital environmental processes.

According to the IWMI, the growing competition and concern can be illustrated by increased purchases of agricultural land in the developing world by some countries with hot and dry climates, such as Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia and China as well as multinational companies.

The challenge for global agriculture then is to grow more food on the less land available, using less water, fertiliser and pesticides than has historically been done. As water becomes scarcer, there is an increasing need to find ways to produce sufficient food to feed the world’s expanding population, while using little water, protecting fragile environmental services and without any opportunity to exploit new agricultural lands.

Children fetching water from one of the several mechanised boreholes provided by World Vision International, Ghana at Jema, Kintampo South District, Brong Ahafo Region of Ghana (Picture taken by the writer)

In this direction, Science and technology can make a major contribution, by providing practical solutions. Science and technology must play a leading role in meeting increasing demand over the coming decades in a sustainable manner. On food, there is need for a new, “greener revolution.” Important areas for focus should include: crop improvement to increase yields and tolerance to stresses such as droughts; smarter use of water and fertilisers; new pesticides and their effective management to avoid resistance problems; introduction of novel non-chemical approaches to crop protection; reduction of post-harvest losses; and more sustainable livestock and marine production.

With regards to water, managing and balancing supply and demand for the resource across sectors requires a range of policy and technological solutions. Agricultural water use efficiency can be improved through the development of drought resistance crops and the use of low-cost and efficient drip irrigation systems by small farmers.

Another pertinent issue that governments and countries have to grapple with in tackling the water and food security needs is the climate change phenomenon. The demands of water and food security must be met against the backdrop of rising global temperatures, impacting on water, food and ecosystems in all regions, and with extreme weather events becoming both more severe and more frequent. Scientists say that rising sea levels and flooding will hit hardest in the mega-deltas, which are important for food production, and will also impact on water quality for many. Oceans will become warmer, more acidic, less diverse and over-exploited. Naturally, the ocean acts as a reservoir for carbon dioxide, but the resulting increase in acidity, seriously impact ocean food webs and ecosystems, on which many of the world’s poor are dependant. Continued over-fishing is expected to further pressure these delicate resources.

Countries will have to explore and make use of renewable carbon capture and storage alternatives, adopt innovative technologies and processes that can radically reduce emissions from transport, buildings and industry, as well as increase the efficiency of energy use throughout the economy.

There is no doubt, that the celebration of WWD has generated a high level of awareness on the need for governments and countries, to pay more attention to issues relating to this extremely precious resource. Previously water deprived communities are now getting access to portable water. However, efforts must be hastened if developing countries, particularly those in Africa can meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) targets of reducing by half the population of people without access to portable water by 2015.

Besides, much more needs to been done in the area of water availability for food security, especially in agrarian countries such as Ghana, where agricultural production is mainly rain-fed. As has been stated earlier, science and technology can contribute. However, securing this contribution requires that both research and technology on ensuring all-year round water availability for food production is made a top priority by national governments.

Water Journalists Africa

Water Journalists Africa (WJA) is the largest network of journalists reporting on water in the African continent. It brings together some 700 journalists from 50 African countries. It was established in...

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