FAO’s warning comes as ministers of agriculture and national officials prepare to tackle the issue at a meeting of the organization’s highest regional governing body beginning next Monday.
Among the issues on the agenda for the 32nd FAO Regional Conference for the Near East and North Africa is a new Regional Water Scarcity Initiative, launched by FAO to support member countries in identifying strategies, policies and practices that promote sustainable solutions to water scarcity and related food security problems.
“The region has made significant strides in two decades in developing its water usage and storage capacities, but there is still much work to be done to improve water efficiency in agriculture, protect water quality, and address challenges related to climate change,” said Abdessalam Ould Ahmed, FAO Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for the Near East and North Africa.
FAO noted in a news release that per capita fresh water availability in the region has plummeted by two-thirds over the past 40 years, heightening concerns over the degradation of water quality and the impact of climate change.
Demographic trends are adding urgency to the issue, the agency stated. Chronic undernourishment in the region is estimated at 11.2 per cent, based on the 2010-2013 reporting period, while the population continues to grow at 2 per cent, almost twice the global rate.
Farming and other agricultural activities consume more than 85 per cent of available rain-fed, irrigated and groundwater resources, and the demand for agricultural products is expected to grow amid burgeoning urban populations and increased exports.
“Agriculture must be central to our responses to the challenge of water scarcity in the Near East and North Africa Region,” stated Mr. Ould Ahmed. “Agriculture is by far the largest user of water in the region, but it is also fundamental to our survival and long-term resilience, accounting for some $95 billion in added value to regional economies.” Next week’s conference, whose theme is “For a resilient and food secure region,” will be the first of a series of meetings to be held in 2014 in each of FAO’s five operational regions. The agenda will include issues like food losses and waste along the production-to-consumption chain, enhancing gender equality, and approaches to improving agriculture and rural development.
Participants are expected to offer guidance on priority areas for action, such as improving governance and institutions; giving more voice to farmers and other non-state stakeholders; and boosting efficiency in water use, both within and across national borders.
According to FAO, more than 60 per cent of the water resources used by countries in the region comes from outside of national and regional boundaries.
The pilot phase of the Regional Water Scarcity Initiative was launched in June 2013 in six countries – Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Oman, Tunisia and Yemen. It began reviewing the current status of water availability and use and the potential for further agricultural production.
It also began identifying and ranking options for future food supply in terms of both their economic and water-requirement costs, and, looking at the performance of agriculture water management and relevant policies, governance and institutional issues.