More than half of people in agriculture areas face water scarcity, says FAO


Available freshwater resources per person have declined by more than 20 percent over the past two decades globally, underscoring the importance of producing more with less, especially in the agriculture sector, the world’s largest user of water, the Food and Agriculture Agency said in a report.

More than three billion people live in agricultural areas with high to very high levels of water shortages and scarcity, and almost half of them face severe constraints, and improved water management, supported by effective governance and strong institutions – including secure water tenure and rights, underpinned by sound water accounting and auditing – will be essential to ensure global food security and nutrition, according to The State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA) 2020.

About 1.2 billion people – 44 percent of them in rural areas and the remainder in small urban centers in the countryside – live in places where severe water shortages and scarcity challenge agriculture, the report said, adding that around 40 percent of them live in Eastern and South-eastern Asia, and a slightly higher share in Southern Asia.

Central Asia and Northern Africa and Western Asia are also severely affected – about one of every five people live in agricultural areas with very high water shortages and scarcity, compared to less than 4 percent in Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, Northern America and Oceania.

According to the report, about 5 percent of people living in sub-Saharan Africa live in similar conditions, meaning that about 50 million people live in areas where severe drought has catastrophic impacts on cropland and pastureland once every three years.

About 11 percent of the world’s rain-fed cropland, or 128 million hectares, face frequent drought, as does about 14 percent of pastureland, or 656 million hectares. Meanwhile, more than 60 percent (or 171 million hectares) of irrigated cropland is highly water stressed.

Eleven countries, all in Northern Africa and Asia, face both challenges, making it urgent and necessary to adopt sound water accounting, clear allocation, modern technologies and to shift to less thirsty crops, the report said.

Did you know?

  • The average amount of freshwater per person in 2017 was about 43 000 m3 in Oceania, while barely reaching 1 000 m3 in Northern Africa and Western Asia.
  • Total water withdrawals per capita are highest in Central Asia, reaching almost 2 000 m3 per person in 2017, compared to less than 130 m3 in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • In least developed countries, 74 percent of rural people do not have access to safe drinking water.
  • 91 countries have national plans for rural drinking water, but only nine have allocated sufficient funding to implement them.
  • Around 41 percent of current global irrigation occurs at the expense of environmental flow requirements, which are essential to sustain ecosystems that provide life-supporting functions.
  • Biofuels require 70 to 400 times more water than do the fossil fuels they replace.
  • Major forests in areas such as the Amazon, Congo and Yangtze river basins are important sources of water vapour for areas downwind and are, therefore, crucial to rain-fed agriculture.

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