In conversation with Dr. Mahmoud El-Solh
Director General, International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA)
How do you assess the urgency of action on water security as we grapple with food security and development in today’s world?
Water security is at the heart of food security and sustainable development particularly in dry areas. And today it presents a challenge of alarming proportions. It has been building up for decades due to increasing populations, the expansion of agriculture with increased intensity of groundwater abstraction and diversion of ever more fresh water resources for farming uses. As a result, many regions are seeing their groundwater resources declining at alarming rates – in some places over a meter a year. Today there are 34 countries with per capita fresh water levels below the annual figure of 1000 cubic meters which is considered the water poverty line.
The problem has become even more critical as we face increasing dry spells due to climate change, the increase in prices of major food commodities and the slowing of global economic growth. There is high unemployment among segments of populations, especially in the young generations of developing countries where the economy is largely agriculture based. Faced with this situation, it is urgent that we better understand and address the dependence of food security, environmental issues and economics on water use for food production. This nexus should be a top priority in countries and donors’ rural sustainable development strategies.
What do you think is the biggest barrier to solving water and food security issues?
The biggest gap countries face today is in large-scale adoption of a range of water-saving farming technologies and improved practices that exist to enhance agricultural productivity, but are being applied mostly in a piecemeal manner. The main reason for this gap is the low public and private investment and the lack of enabling policies needed to bring these solutions to scale, to improve the livelihoods of millions of smallholder farmers. The complexity of the challenges facing water and food security in dry areas is the importance of following an integrated approach involving sustainable natural resource management, crop and livestock genetic improvement and consideration to socio-economic aspects, enabling policy and institutional support. The agricultural research and development community, including the CGIAR Consortium, have developed and demonstrated a variety of techniques for more efficient and effective water use as well as higher agriculture productivity. The most recent global effort to address food and water security for smallholder farmers is the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems, which is doing action research to test high potential packages that can be scaled-up in specific agro-ecological settings in five different target regions of the developing world.
Today, technically, we are well positioned. Practical solutions to the water for food crisis exist and are being applied by many countries. These are sustainable agricultural practices and technologies that reduce crop-water use and increase the efficiency of water use for food production. They include raised-bed farming applied in a number of locations in Egypt, that has increased wheat yields by 20%, using 20% less water. Or supplemental irrigation, which improves water productivity, allowing farmers to plant and manage crops at the optimal time, regardless of fluctuations in rainfall and changing climate patterns.
Where can we best focus our efforts for maximum and immediate returns on ground?
Action is needed on a number of fronts. But the most practical and high-value investment is to bridge the knowledge and financial gap for smallholder farmers. They need support with information, knowledge and with financing to invest in water-saving technologies, and we need to put mechanisms in place that can accelerate the flow of all of these. Using a combination of effective technology packages in an integrated approach, practical policies and investment, we have the potential to double or triple the production and incomes for smallholder farmers in irrigated areas and in dryland farming.