Major Rivers Have Enough Water to Meet Food Needs

Major river systems in the developing world have enough water to meet food-production needs this century, according to a report by researchers from 30 countries published in the journal Water International.

A study of 10 river basins in Asia, Latin America and Africa released today from Recife, Brazil, found there’s “clearly enough” water, and the issue is one of inefficient use and unfair distribution rather than scarcity, the Challenge Program on Water and Food, or CPWF, said in a statement.

The river basins studied are home to about 1.5 billion people, according to the research group. World food output will have to climb 70 percent by 2050 as the world’s population rises to 9.2 billion from an estimated 6.9 billion in 2010, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.

“Water scarcity is not affecting our ability to grow enough food,” Alain Vidal, director of the CPWF who is based in Colombo, Sri Lanka, said in the statement. “There is scarcity in certain areas, but our findings show that the problem overall is a failure to make efficient use of the water available in these river basins.”

The CPWF, based in Battaramulla, Sri Lanka, was set up by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, a collaboration of research centers funded by governments and organizations including the U.S., the European Union, India and the World Bank.

The researchers studied the Andes and Sao Francisco river basins in South America, the Limpopo, Niger, Nile and Volta river systems in Africa and the Indus-Ganges, Karkheh, Mekong and Yellow River basins in Asia.

‘Complete Fragmentation’

The study found “complete fragmentation of how river basins are managed amongst different actors, and even countries where the different sectors, agriculture, industry, environment and mining, are considered separately rather than as interrelated and interdependent,” Simon Cook, head of the CPWF’s Basins Focal Research Project, said in the statement.

Governments need to rethink how to use the multiple benefits from river systems, rather than focus on one sector such as hydropower, irrigation or industry, the researchers said.

“This is ultimately a political challenge, not a resource concern,” Vidal said.

Africa has the biggest potential to increase food production, with only 4 percent of available water captured for food and livestock, according to the report. “Huge” amounts of rainwater are lost or unused, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, according to Vidal.

“With a major push to intensify rain-fed agriculture, we could feed the world without increasing the strain on river-basins systems,” Cook said.

The researchers found production to be at least 10 percent below potential in “large” parts of Asia and Latin America, according to the statement. In the Indus and Ganges, 23 percent of rice farms are producing about half of what they could sustainably produce, according to the report.

Areas with relatively good water efficiency are in the Ganges, Nile and Yellow River basins, where farmers and governments have “vastly” increased the amount of food produced from available water, the research showed.

Water “hot spots” are in the Indus, Yellow, Nile and Limpopo river basins, where conflict over sharing water resources is increasing, according to the study.

(CPWF corrects name of journal in first paragraph of story originally published on Sept. 26.)
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