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Looming Water Crisis Threatens Food Supplies
Environmental News Service

WASHINGTON, DC- Water scarcity could leave millions of people without access to clean water or adequate food, warns a new report released in conjunction with World Food Day 2002. The study by two international agricultural research centers calls for changes in water policies and investments to avert environmental damage, health risks and threats to the global food supply.

Using computer modeling, the report by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) projects that by 2025, water scarcity will cause annual global losses of 350 million metric tons of food production - slightly more than the entire current U.S. grain crop.

"Unless we change policies and priorities, in 20 years, there won't be enough water for cities, households, the environment, or growing food," cautioned Dr. Mark Rosegrant, lead author of the report and senior research fellow at IFPRI. "Water is not like oil. There is no substitute. If we continue to take it for granted, much of the earth is going to run short of water or food - or both."

Due in part to rapid population growth and urbanization in developing countries, water use for households, industry, and agriculture will increase by at least 50 percent in the next 20 years, says the report, titled "Global Water Outlook to 2025: Averting an Impending Crisis." Increased competition for water will limit the availability of water for irrigation, which in turn will constrain the world's production of food.

Declines in food supplies could cause prices to skyrocket, the report predicts, and higher prices will lead to increased rates of malnutrition, since many poor people in developing countries already spend more than half their income on food.

"For hundreds of millions of poor farmers in developing countries, a lack of access to water for growing food is the most important constraint they face," said Frank Rijsberman, director general of IWMI. "If countries continue to underinvest in building strong institutions and policies to support water governance and approaches to give better access to water to poor communities, growth rates for crop yields will fall worldwide in the next 25 years, primarily because of water scarcity."

According to the report, it would take only a moderate worsening in global water policy to bring about a genuine water crisis. If governments continue to cut spending on crop research, technology, and infrastructure, while failing to implement institutional and management reforms, global grain production will drop by 10 percent over business as usual levels, equivalent to losing the entire annual grain crop of India.

Lack of adequate investment and poorly planned systems will hamper progress in providing water and sanitation services for hundreds of millions of people.

"Currently, more than one billion people around the world do not have access to a safe water supply, and adequate sanitation is even less available," noted Dr. Joachim von Braun, director general of IFPRI.

"Lack of clean water and sanitation is a major cause of disease and child mortality," von Braun continued. "While world leaders recently agreed at the World Summit on Sustainable Development to cut in half the number of people without access to clean water by 2015, this goal will not become a reality unless governments redirect their water policies to meet the needs of poor people."

Fundamental changes in water policies and investment priorities could achieve substantial benefits and sustainable use of water, the report argues. For example, the report recommends pricing water to reflect its cost and value.

"Although water subsidies are commonplace in developing countries, they tend to benefit relatively wealthy people," explained Dr. Peter Hazell, director of Environment and Production Technology at IFPRI. "Making affluent people pay for water would encourage them to conserve. It would also free up financial resources to provide clean, safe water to poor people."

The report also recommends increased investment in crop research, technological improvements and rural infrastructure to boost water productivity and crops yields from rain fed farming, which the report estimates will account for one half the increase in food production between 1995 and 2025.

"We need to invest in water conservation, for example, using innovative low cost, small scale irrigation technologies - such as a five dollar bucket and drip kit or manually operated treadle pumps - that allow smallholder farmers to irrigate crops using less water, and deliver water to crops when it is needed," said Rijsberman.

"A number of useful new small scale technologies and community level water management innovations have emerged in recent years," Rijsberman added. "Governments must learn from these practices in order to implement practical solutions for using less water in agriculture. Without conservation, aquifers, lakes and wetlands will be further depleted."

But the report also notes that it is not too late to make the changes that could avert future water and food shortages. A shift to more sustainable water use could expand river flows and boost the water available for irrigation and other human uses, the report notes.

"A crisis is not inevitable," said Rosegrant. "The world can both consume less water, and reap greater benefits. To achieve sustainable water use, we must act now. The required strategies take not only money and political will, but time as well."

The full report is available at:

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