UN conference calls for balancing water use between agriculture and environment

4 February 2005

A United Nations conference attended by 140 countries today called for a more efficient management of the world’s “valuable and scarce” water supplies to balance the agricultural needs of producing food with the imperative of safeguarding the environment.

“The tragic paradox of water is that water is a truly valuable resource of which the true value is often invisible,” the head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Agriculture Department, Louise Fresco, said at the end of the five-day meeting in The Hague, Netherlands.

“We do need to solve this paradox and move towards a true valuation of water, through a mechanism that goes beyond its economic value to include social equity and environmental values,” she added.

The conference, Water for food and ecosystems, jointly organized by FAO and the Dutch Government, adopted a list of actions to improve the efficient use of water for food production while safeguarding ecosystems, calling on countries to harmonize legislation and policies.

Each country should decide which incentives should be introduced to use water more efficiently, bring in interest groups from different sectors, such as agriculture, industry and the environment, to develop a strategic water plan to place a value on national water resources and define water allocations.

Valuing water should take into account socio-economic, environmental concerns, basic human rights and cultural factors. Economic mechanisms could be used to put a price tag on water for food and ecosystems such as forests and wetlands through water charges and payments for environmental services.

But attention should be paid to ensuring equitable and fair access and the ability of the poor to pay for water consumption. Farmers, especially women, should have access to credits for investments in water technology for agriculture.

Countries should urgently launch national awareness-raising campaigns to stress the idea that water is a valuable and scarce good. Without such awareness, it would be very difficult to receive public support for a new economic approach towards valuing water and a more efficient use. Public private partnerships could stimulate development of technologies for re-use of wastewater, low-cost drip irrigation and treadle pumps.

The conference requested FAO to take a lead in informing countries on good practices on how to reconcile the water needs of agriculture and ecosystems.

 

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