Who Owns Your Neighborhood's Water?
Global Water Crisis Draws Near
Here is a report released by newscientist.com
One-third of the world’s population is short of water – a situation we were not predicted to arrive at until 2025 – according to a disturbing new report on the state of the world’s water supplies.
Squeezing more out of every raindrop that falls on poverty-stricken regions of Africa and Asia is key to the survival of the world’s poorest and most malnourished people, researchers say.
The report by the International Water Management Institute in Colombo, Sri Lanka, was released on Monday in Stockholm at the start of World Water Week. It paints a bleak picture of global access to fresh water and warns that the world cannot carry on complacently using water as if it will never run out.
“Business as usual is not an option,” says David Molden of the institute, and coordinator of the report, called Insights from the Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture.
It concludes that one-third of the world’s population now suffers water scarcity, a situation that has materialised 20 years sooner than predicted by an assessment five years ago.
The reason for the discrepancy is that earlier predictions were based on a country-by-country analysis. The latest figures stem from a more detailed analysis of natural water basins.
Several, such as the Yellow River basin in north-east China, which is effectively the country’s “bread basket”, are exhausted to the point where they cannot support any more people or activity.
Although some water sources feeding big cities and industrialised economies can barely meet demand, the researchers point out that cheapest and most efficient gains in water efficiency are ones which benefit the poor most, through increasing storage and utilisation of rainfall, which at present goes to waste.
The report says highlights the benefits of increasing the efficiency of rain-watered agriculture, rather than irrigation. It is the fastest, cheapest way to end malnutrition, raise poor farmers out of poverty, stop invasion of natural habitats and halt spiralling depletion of the world’s fresh water, the report says.
Whereas expansion of irrigation to feed agriculture often requires large capital investment and building work which takes years, many of the steps to improve rain-fed agriculture can be taken now, and are very cheap, the researchers explain.
"Bang for your buck"
Compiled over five years with input from about 700 experts, the report says that such steps could double or even triple food production in sub-Saharan Africa and southeast Asia, where 800 million people are classed as malnourished. It would increase productivity from each raindrop by the same amount. “That’s the best bang for your buck in terms of poverty reduction and productivity gains from water,” says Molden.
The environment would be the other major winner from making rain-fed agriculture more productive, since it would slow the invasion of natural habitats by farmers whose land has become barren.
If the proposed plans are implemented and they work, rain-fed agriculture would only need to expand by 10% into natural habitats by 2050, the report concludes.
The practical steps needed to increase efficiency of rain-fed agriculture are remarkably simple, and essentially mean storing more water when it rains instead of letting it escape. They include catching water in plastic tubular bags that resemble swimming-pool-sized water beds, and piping roof water from gutters into storage receptacles.
Other steps include building small hollows and embankments alongside drainage channels to capture and store water, and building ditches to capture rainwater that spills off roads.
And by planting seeds without ploughing, soil is better able to hold on to moisture. Molden says that such techniques developed in the semi-arid Brazilian region of Cerredos won this year's World Food Prize and could easily be adapted for use by farmers in Africa’s Savannahs.
Crucially, these relatively simple measures could allow farmers to survive short periods of drought which at present destroy their harvests, reducing their risks of failure. “If you don‘t have water in two weeks in the Sahel region of Africa, you’ll have crop failure, and at present that happens every four or five years so people don’t risk rain-fed methods,” says Molden. “Our idea is to have water set aside for an ‘unrainy’ day as your insurance against drought,” he says.
Couple that with development of better-yielding, hardier crops and the route out of poverty could accelerate still faster. Results presented a month ago in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, at the Africa Rice Congress showed that farmers planting a higher-yielding rice in Benin earned enough extra money to send their children to school and to pay for medical treatment when they became ill. “We’re saying that water investment is that first step that will lift people out of poverty,” says Molden, especially if coupled with increased use of fertiliser.
As to how it should happen, Molden says that pan-African bodies such as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) established five years ago to develop a technological “Marshall plan” to modernise Africa, could get things moving at continent level by prioritising resources for rain-fed farms, especially as NEPAD is supported by the African Union representing Africa’s heads of state. Then, the projects could be followed through regionally and locally.
But action has to begin now. If nothing changes, twice as much water will be needed to feed everyone by 2050. But if the appropriate steps are taken now, global growth in water use could actually slow by 50%, the report finds.
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