Leading scientists launch ‘Blue Paper’ as
wake-up call to combat water scarcity and food shortages
Stockholm – August 19th.
A ‘Blue Paper’ Report launched today by some of the world’s top
agricultural scientists at the World Water Week in Stockholm, highlights the difficult choices that
must be made as mounting pressure from the world’s growing population for more food could
lead to greater water consumption and increasing environmental degradation. While the Blue
Paper accepts that more water for agriculture will be necessary in the short term, how much
water, where it comes from and the environmental and social consequences of its use depend
very much on decisions made in the next few years“The bottom line is that groundwater levels are plummeting and our rivers are already
overstressed, yet there is a lot of complacency about the future”, explains Dr. David Molden,
Principal Scientist with the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). “Producing enough
food from rain fed and irrigated agriculture to feed one person for a year requires almost an
Olympic size swimming pool of water. If we continue to suck our rivers dry, the effects on the
environment and people’s livelihoods could be calamitous”.
One of the most widely supported pathways towards freeing up water for the environment and
other uses is to improve water productivity - which means extracting more value from each drop
of water used though increased crop yields, fish production, livelihoods and environmental
values. Improved crop varieties combined with better tillage methods and more precise drip or
micro irrigation can reduce water consumption and make a huge difference to crop yields.
Drought resistant seeds, water harvesting schemes and small plot technologies such as manually
operated treadle pumps have the potential to boost yields by 100% in many areas of sub-
Saharan Africa where most farmers depend on rain fed agriculture.
“‘If we can improve water productivity by 40% over the next twenty five years we’ll be able to
reduce the global need for extra water for irrigation to zero”, explains Prof. Frank Rijsberman,
Director General of IWMI. “Investments - particularly in Africa are vital. The right mix of policies
and incentives can help to develop the potential of rain fed irrigation and encourage farmers to
invest in low-cost water management methods and technologies which will help them to move
beyond subsistence levels of agriculture’’.
The Blue Paper suggests other possible options for reducing the need for more water, one being
to influence peoples’ diets. Western diets based on meat from grain fed cattle account for as
much as 5,000 liters per capita per day while vegetarian diets deplete less than half as much
water. “With prevailing land and water management practices, a balanced diet requires 3287
liters of water per day compared to the 50 used for an average household’s domestic needs,“explained Prof. Malin Falkenmark of the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI).
Increasing the trade of ‘virtual water’ - or trade in food from water abundant countries to water
scarce ones is another option to be considered, but it is questionable whether low income
countries will be able to afford ‘virtual water’ and there may be negative consequences for poor
farmers. In water scarce areas increasing the use of urban wastewater for irrigation is another
alternative. It is estimated that up to one-tenth of the world’s population eats food produced using
wastewater from towns and cities. The way that policies are shaped outside of the water sector
also has a significant influence on water consumption. Agricultural subsidies in the west are a
major factor in keeping prices low for agricultural producers in developing countries.
The main competition for water over the next century will be between agriculture and the
environment. Globally, agriculture uses between 70 to 90% of developed water supplies and the
livelihoods of 70% of the world’s poor depend largely on farming. Despite the benefits, large-scale
irrigation systems have led to pollution in rivers and the drying up of wetlands. A recent global
study carried out by IWMI researchers calculated that at least 30% of the world’s river flows need
to be used to maintain the condition of freshwater ecosystems worldwide.
The Blue Paper draws on research carried out by some of the world’s leading agricultural
researchers and water professionals - most of whom are associated with the Comprehensive
Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture, a five year International research program that
will culminate in 2006 with a state of the world report highlighting the best investment strategies
that governments, farming communities and donors can make in water management over the
next twenty five years in order to meet food and environmental security goals.
Notes for Editors: IWMI (www.iwmi.cgiar.org) and its associated research programs including the
Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture (www.iwmi.org/assessment) and the
Challenge Program on Water and Food (www.waterforfood.org) will be convening a variety of seminars and
workshops during the World Water Week in Stockholm (www.siwi.org), a leading annual global venue for
future-oriented dialogue on water and related issues.