01 Oct 2020

5 questions to michel jarraud President of UN WATER

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UN-Water, as the United Nations inter-agency coordination mechanism on all issues related to freshwater, brings together 31 UN entities as well as 29 international partners to address the cross cutting nature of water issues in a coordinated and coherent fashion.

Michel-JarraudAgriculture Internationale - Today, 70% of the global water withdrawals are used for agriculture. How can agriculture act positively on water management, based on what reflection, using which leverages and with which strategies and tools?

Michel Jarraud - Population growth in the coming years (expected to be over 9 billion by 2015) will require more food from agriculture, which in turn means more water use. Key responses to this challenge are: (i) sustainable intensification of agriculture. A substantial gap between actual and potential productivity of farming systems still exists in some areas of the world. Bio-physical, managerial, and socio-economic barriers need to be removed to reduce such a gap. Due to the strong link between water and the “yield” of these farming systems, any reduction of the productivity gap will reflect positively on the water productivity; and (ii) improved efficiency of water resources use. Productivity and efficiency of water use imply a better allocation of these resources among the different farming systems, a better management of water use within each farming system, adoption of better water technologies, but also a better management and technology in non-water related practices, such as pest and diseases control, plant nutrition and soil fertility, cultivars choice, etc.

In other words an improvement in the farming husbandry is key to increase efficiency and productivity in water use. The use of weather and climate services, such as weather forecasts and seasonal outlooks in the application of water and management of water supply systems, will play an increasingly important role in improving water use efficiency, especially in a changing and variable climate. With regards to combating the impacts of drought, additional measures would include establishing comprehensive drought early warning systems, drought planning, and education and awareness raising. Better exploitation of the opportunities in the partnership with the private sectors, incentives in using best farming practices and technology, and overall improved market access for higher farmer incomes are important conditions for higher water productivity.

A.I. - Among existing means allowing to reduce this consumption, which are the ones you think are the most relevant?

M.J - There will be no one single solution that can be considered like a ‘silver bullet’ for solving the problem. Existing varieties considered drought tolerant have already exploited most of the opportunities of genetic improvement. New genetic research based on advanced molecular-biology technologies has not released so far varieties that respond significantly to water stress. The genetics set the ceiling for yield, but the management in the field tries to provide the conditions to actually reach such a ceiling. Therefore investments should also be directed toward agronomy in the field. Rainwater harvesting associated to water storage, with supplementary irrigation, increase significantly the water productivity. Water desalinization is already adopted in severe water-scarce countries (like the one of the Gulf) but desalinized water is mostly used for the urban sector.

At the moment, the high energy costs prevent its use for agriculture. As indicated before, optimal allocation of farming systems, best farming management practices, and adoption of proper technologies remain the foundation for reducing water consumption in agriculture. Understanding the benefits of optimal use of the range of water delivery technologies as part of “water smart” irrigation tools will make a major contribution, especially when farmers and extension agents also make better use of weather and climate information to manage when and how much to irrigate their crops.

A.I. - Henceforth, intensive agriculture seems to extend to all regions of the world, including where one would have considered it impossible due to water scarcity and soil poverty. Has this situation, in addition to worrying perspectives related to global warming, contributed to increase the awareness of stakeholders in the agricultural sector of the necessity to better preserve the water resource?

WaterM.J - We have been transiting from the green revolution of about 50 years ago, where productivity increase (and land expansion) has neglected the environmental impact, to an agriculture that has acquired awareness on the consequences on the environment. Actually, I would say that a new paradigm is being introduced in the “sustainable intensification of agriculture” where the focus is shifting from that of “productivity enhancement while minimizing the impact on environment” to that of “sustainability that enhance productivity”. The CGIAR*, FAO** and other organizations related to agriculture and the environment are working together towards this paradigm.

The impacts of natural hazards and extreme events on agriculture have increased the demand for timely and relevant information to enable appropriate decision making. Advances in science and technology have improved the accuracy of both short-term and seasonal forecasting capabilities, knowledge-based decision support systems, and information and communication technologies. As a result, effective measures for improved eco-farming, and, preparedness and mitigation strategies have become more readily available to assist the agricultural sector to become more resilient to climate variability and change and to promote agricultural sustainability.

A.I. - It is often in regions where the water resource is scarcer that elaborated technologies need to be used in order to overcome it. Isn’t this adding an insuperable obstacle to all efforts in terms of competitiveness of their productions?

M.J - The issue of competitiveness depends also on other factors related to the market. In several countries where water is scarce there is a need also to address food security. The initial food crisis of 2008 and the continuous price volatility of some basic agricultural commodities have induced several food-importer countries to reduce their dependency and vulnerability to import through an increase of their in-country productivity. The problem in severe water scarce countries, thus, is that of food security and water security and definitely beyond that of competitiveness.

As the Fifth Assessment Report clearly shows, climate change is going to have serious impacts on the hydrological cycle, with higher temperatures, greater evaporation and altered rainfall patterns. In this context water and agriculture sustainability will play a key role in sustainable growth and food security. Therefore we must tailor climate information to the needs of the different economic sectors sensitive to climate. This is why the United Nations has established the Global Framework for Climate Services, an international partnership that will help to translate global and regional climate predictions and projections into climate information products and services for the public sector and major business.

A.I. - What are the programmes developed today by UN-Water, what do you think are the emergency measures needed to ensure universal and balanced access to water and do we have the necessary means to achieve it?

M.J - The work of UN-Water is organized around Thematic Priority Areas which address specific issues that require long-term attention and strong interagency collaboration and coordination, and Task Forces, which are time-bound and cover areas where UN-Water Members have identified specific activities to be implemented. Universal and equal access to water and sanitation is a prerequisite to sustainable development. For that reason UN-Water is working in collaboration with Member States and stakeholders to inform the post-2015 process, and supports the creation of a water goal that encompasses water supply, sanitation and hygiene, water resources management, and wastewater management and water quality.

Without all three components, access to water cannot be sustainable nor equitable. The post-2015 process will shape the global development agenda post 2015 when the Millennium Development Goals will reach their target date. It is therefore essential that water be adequately addressed in this new development framework for governments, donors and financing institutions to give sufficient emphasis to water in their policy and development programmes, and ensure the necessary financial flows and investments. UN-Water is currently working hard in that direction.

* Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research / **Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.



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