Global study on water resources: inefficient use must end!

While water-related conflicts and shortages abound throughout the rapidly changing societies of Africa, Asia and Latin America, there is clearly sufficient water to sustain food, energy, industrial and environmental needs during the 21st century, according to a study from the Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF) of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

The report finds that the “sleeping giant” of water challenges is not scarcity, but the inefficient use and inequitable distribution of the massive amounts of water that flow through the breadbaskets of key river basins. 

Presenting the study at the World Water Congress in Brazil held in late September 2011, CPWF director Alain Vidal concluded that “water scarcity is not affecting our ability to grow enough food today, the problem is rather a failure to make efficient and fair use of the water available in these river basins. This is ultimately a political challenge, not a resource concern”.

While Africa has the biggest potential to increase food production, researchers identified large areas of arable land in Asia and Latin America where production is at least 10 percent below its potential. For example, in the Indus and Ganges, researchers found 23 percent of rice systems are producing about half of what they could sustainably yield. 

According to CGIAR, the analysis – which involved five years of research by scientists in 30 countries around the world – is the most comprehensive effort to date to assess how, over vast regions, human societies are coping with the growing need for water to nurture crops and pastures, generate electricity, quench the thirst of rapidly growing urban centres, and sustain our environment. The ten river basins that were studied include: the Andes and São Francisco in South America; the Limpopo, Niger, Nile and Volta basins in Africa; and the Indus-Ganges, Karkheh, Mekong, and Yellow in Asia. The basins cover 13.5 million square kilometers and are home to some 1.5 billion people, 470 million of whom are amongst the world’s poorest.

The authors of the study also note that boosting food production in the basins studied requires looking beyond crops to consider more efficient uses of water to improve livestock operations and fisheries. Water policies often ignore the role livestock and fish play in local livelihoods and diets. 

(CGIAR/wi)