Water is at the heart of food security in drylands

Farmers are hardest hit by drought; but they are the biggest users of water. Photo: N. Palmer (CIAT)
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Nov 16, 2012



By Clare Pedrick

Farmers in the dry areas face a wide range of problems, many of which were examined by experts in Doha at the The International Conference on Food Security in Dry Lands (FSDL) this week. Of all the problems, water is the common denominator – ever-present and affecting all aspects of food production on these lands.

Arid and semi-arid areas face the biggest challenge, as climate change, population growth, pollution and increased salinity place growing pressure on smallholder farmers in their quest for stable food production. The problem is becoming even more acute due to competing demands from  rapidly increasing urban areas.

Farmers are the hardest hit, but they are also the biggest users of water. Globally, agriculture uses 70% of all water extracted from rivers, lakes and aquifers.

Better water management, planning, technology and pricing mechanisms were some of the measures urged at the conference.

While water issues are recognized by national leaders as a strategic priority, experts at the meeting noted that very few countries have a master plan for managing water in their agricultural sector and for dealing with the incertainties that lie ahead. The importance of pricing water was highlighted as an effective way to encourage its efficient use.

But what about the poorest farmers? Would pricing not further disadvantage them? One approach highlighted practices of some countries that provide water free of charge to certain segments of society or provide low cost water up to specific volumes to encourage efficient use in irrigation. 

Investments in water technologies, such as drip irrigation, hydroponics, vertical agriculture and water harvesting techniques must go hand-in-hand with improved soil and crop management techniques. Conservation agriculture (zero tillage) retains precious moisture in soil that would otherwise be lost through plowing – also trapping nutrients and maintaining  soil fertility.

For a nutritional perspective, it takes one liter of water to produce 1 kilocalorie of food.  “This means that each person consumes 3 to 4000 liters per day, just while eating,” said Dr. Alexander Muller of the United Nations Organization for Food and Agricuture. “So it is absolutely essential to invest in water efficiency for food security. The energy-water-food nexus in the dry lands will be one of the most challenging in the world.”

Harvesting water in a dry lands context is markedly different from the conventional view of rainwater harvesting. In dry lands new approaches are emerging for locating micro-catchments in areas ‘where there is no water’. Here, a combination of satellite remote sensing and observation on the ground can identify new water sources in dry areas. Using this approach, countries can pinpoint where new sources exist near remote communities and install appropriate structures to capture the water – for home use, animals or irrigation. This strategy has been tested in dry areas such as Jordan and Libya.   

The experts called for better auditing to identify where water is being lost, in the environment and along the food production chain. A policy shift is also key, so that users have better incentives to adopt more sustainable water management practices. Other approaches include crop rotation and biotechnology to enhance water use in crops.

In the dry lands, there is scope for harnessing traditional knowledge developed over generations by rural communities. Examples include underground cisterns, flood harvesting systems and basins for collecting water and channelling it for household use and horticulture.

“There is a strong tradition in the region of embedded wisdom on water storage and water management,” said UK water expert Prof. Mike Edmunds. “The resilience and adaptability of rural communities should be developed further.”

Clare Pedrick is a journalist specializing in agriculture, rural development and the environment. She is reporting from The International Conference on Food Security in Dry Lands (FSDL) held in Doha, Qatar from 14 to 15 November 2012. Read more blogs from the conference.

Are you interested in safeguarding our food system in a changing climate? Then be sure to register for Forest Day (2 December) and Agriculture, Landscapes and Livelihoods Day (3 December) in Doha, and follow #ALLForest on twitter!