Solving the food crisis needs water

Posted 14 January 2009

Dr Colin Chartres

The world's food crisis has plunged a further 100 million people below the poverty line. For a family living on $5 per day, the almost doubling of food bills means that to survive they have to forgo medicines, educational opportunities and sometimes meals. This is a disgrace in a world where people in richer nations are wasting food and struggling with an obesity epidemic. While the immediacy of the food crisis may disappear temporarily as supply catches up with demand, it is clear that underlying factors including water scarcity, biofuels production, changes in dietary preferences, urbanization and continuing population growth mean an increasing degree of food price volatility in the future.

So the key question is how are the richer countries going to help poorer countries increase food production and resilience against unexpected shocks? Similarly, what can poorer countries do to help themselves?

There has been clear evidence from Australia and elsewhere that investment in agricultural research and development has helped many countries increase crop and animal production by an average of 3-5 per cent per year in the 1980s, but that these figures have declined now to nearer 1-2 per cent per year due to lower investment.

Continued increases in productivity are exactly what are needed to feed the ever increasing number of mouths, given that land and particularly water availability for expansion of agriculture are highly limited. However, recent evidence has clearly demonstrated that expenditure on agricultural overseas development assistance (ODA) has, in real terms, declined since the 1980s.

Between 1980 and 2002 multilateral institutions slashed the global volume of assistance to agriculture from $3.4b to $0.5b from and bilateral investment reducing from $2.8b to $1.7b between 1980 and 2002 according to the UN. Most of this decrease occurred during the 1990s. Furthermore, agriculture's share of ODA fell from 17 per cent in 1982 to 3 per cent of total ODA in 2006. At the same time funding for R&D in agriculture has also declined in most countries.

The Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) who's mandate is focused on assisting the world's poor improve their livelihoods and food security through better agriculture and natural resource management has seen its budget stagnate over the last 20 years. Paralleling these changes has been the decline in interest in careers in agriculture and the view in some quarters that agriculture is a sunset industry.

Given the recent food crisis and the undoubted water crisis which is particularly manifest in southern Australia, now is the time to wake up to the fact that investment in agriculture and the natural resource base that supports it is critical. The president of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick recently called for a doubling of investment in the CGIAR alone. This will need to be matched by investments by national governments in many poorer countries aimed at improving the capabilities of the agricultural and extension advisory services and levels of production.

Whilst the developed countries can provide funds for R&D, the task for the poorer countries of reforming poorly functional policy, institutions, subsidies and regulation and of building capacity to enable poor farmers to take advantage of R&D and market opportunities should not be underestimated.

There are still significant gains that can be made in improving agricultural productivity across Asia and Africa. These include not only the need for improved yielding and disease resistant crop varieties and varieties adapted to changing climate conditions, but also a revolution in irrigation system performance based on improving infrastructure and water users participation in system operation. Similarly, better understanding and management of groundwater may be the difference between life and death for some poor south Asian farmers and an effective climate change adaptation strategy for some African farmers.

The challenges are immense and must not be underestimated. A critical point in my view, is that given the complexity of current agricultural and natural resource systems, effective solutions to increasing food production have to be broader than just crop breeding. Water for agriculture is coming under severe competition and needs to be an integral part of the solution. With approximately 1 billion people, predominantly in Asia, under the poverty line and at risk of further malnutrition, the stakes are also very high from a social and political perspective.

The challenge of feeding the world and providing enough water to facilitate this is daunting, given that the consequences of failure will have profound ramifications for rich as well as poor countries. It is a challenge that will only succeed if investment in agriculture and natural resources management is seen as the key to a more prosperous and stable future for the poor and a basis for helping poor countries increase their gross domestic product and thus move up the development pathway.

The International Water Management Institute, which I lead, is ready to take on this challenge and wants to do so in partnership with leading Australian and international agencies.

Australian soil and water scientist, Dr Colin Chartres is Director General of the Sri Lanka-based International Water Management Institute (IWMI), a non-profit research organization focusing on the sustainable management of water resources for food, livelihoods and the environment. IWMI is one of 15 research centers supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Chartres has 30 years' experience in driving research and policy reform in natural resources management. Prior to his appointment, he was Chief Science Advisor to Australia's National Water Commission where he led a baseline assessment of Australia's water resources and development of a science framework for the Commission. He also worked in various capacities with the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), and chaired the Global Research Alliance's Water Action Council.

IWMI has a staff of about 350 and offices in 12 countries across Asia and Africa. Its vision is "Water for a Food Secure World."



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