When in Egypt, one feels just how dramatically important agriculture has been, and continues to be, for civilisation.
Many thousands of years ago, Egypt had already developed skillful uses of the beneficent, nutrient-rich Nile River for irrigation purposes and grew not only wheat on a large scale but also cultivated papyrus, the precursor to modern paper. Later, its granaries served as a bread basket for the Roman Empire.
Nowadays, the increasing lack of water poses unprecedented challenges to this legacy, not only in Egypt, but in all the countries of the Near East and North Africa region.
Fresh water resources in the region have fallen by two-thirds over the last 40 years and on a per capita basis today average 10 times less than the rest of the world. The latter fact alone represents a challenge along all three major dimensions of sustainability.
Improved water management is critical for economic, social and environmental reasons.
The impacts of climate change, for example, are putting at risk some of the most fertile lands in the Nile Delta. A recent study by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) showed that higher temperatures may shorten growing seasons by several weeks and reduce agricultural yields a further 27 per cent to 55 per cent less by the end of the century.
In this context, it is imperative to promote agriculture production systems that consume less water and are more resilient to climate change impacts. Food systems should be transformed and adapted to make them more efficient, more sustainable and more inclusive.
These are among the main objectives of the FAO’s Regional Initiative on Water Scarcity.
The initiative, based on identifying and streamlining policies and best practices in agriculture water management, is already making progress in the greater region by supporting decentralisation of groundwater governance in Yemen and Morocco, water harvesting in Jordan, and innovative methods of accounting for water and bolstering drought-preparedness in Lebanon and Tunisia. Solar pumping has been introduced in Egypt.
Water is always precious, and its absence is one of the monumental concerns of the century ahead. Agriculture will have to shoulder a great burden in the required adjustments, as it uses up 70 per cent of the world’s fresh water today and, through excessive use of pesticides and chemicals, often contaminates what it uses.
Human health and hygiene, food production and soil fertility depend on coordinated responses to coping with water scarcity. This is why the FAO and its partners also launched the Global Framework on Water Scarcity during the United Nations Climate Conference in Morocco last November (COP 22).
More people need more water for more purposes, and every wasted drop threatens to lead to reduced food production and inadequate economic and employment growth, making the fight against poverty more difficult and triggering migration flows.
According to the World Health Organisation, 663 million people in the world today, 80 per cent of whom live in rural areas, lack improved drinking water sources.
In the Near East and North Africa, the challenges are even greater. Since the region is currently home to the largest humanitarian crises of our time, and 60 per cent of the region’s fresh water crosses national boundaries, peace and stability are not guaranteed and require investment.
The changes required will be sweeping and will impact both supply and demand. For Egypt, that means changing crop and dietary choices. The watchword must be that there is no time nor water to waste. Wheat cultivation will have to be seriously scrutinised, as research suggests as much as 400 litres of water are wasted for each kg of the grain.
Rural households, especially smallholder farmers, are the most vulnerable to both the risks and the burdens that these changes will impose. They need urgent technical and financial assistance to be able to adapt to climate change. Crafting policies with, and for, their beneficial use is in the interest of all.
Only in this way, will the international community be able to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, especially the SDGs number one and two of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger by 2030.
The writer is director-general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.