The Water Dialogues, held in Madrid last October, are annual meetings held to discuss different topics, in order to promote the exchange of knowledge and experiences between Latin America and Spain with regards to issues of interest for the water sector.
In October 2018 the 4th edition of this event was held, and on this occasion, we interviewed Patricia Mejías Moreno. She is a Water Resources Officer with the Land and Water Division of the FAO Strategic Programme to Reduce Poverty.
Question - What are the most pressing water challenges in Latin America?
Answer - Water scarcity issues are one of the greatest challenges the world's population faces nowadays. It is estimated that 2 billion people, almost 30% of the world's population, live in countries with high water stress. Unfortunately, this situation will only become worse in the future, mainly due to population growth, economic development and climate change.
Even though the region of Latin America has one of the largest shares of freshwater resources (about 31%), it still faces water scarcity issues. About two thirds of the land surface of Latin America are arid and semiarid regions, where the available water resources are not sufficient to meet the demands. Moreover, the areas experiencing water scarcity are often the most populated in the region, and are very vulnerable to climate change. This is the case of the Central Valley in Chile, the Cuyo and southern regions in Argentina, the coast of Peru and southern coast of Ecuador, the Cauca and Magdalena valleys in Colombia, the Bolivian Plateau, the Gran Chaco, shared by Bolivia, Argentina and Paraguay, the north-east of Brazil, and the Pacific Coast of Central America.
Almost 30% of the world's population lives in countries with high water stress
In many countries in the region, agriculture and food safety are and will be the most affected by water scarcity and extreme weather events. According to the estimates of the FAO's Panorama of Food and Nutritional Security, undernourishment in Latin America and the Caribbean increased to 6.6% in 2016, that is, 42.5 million people do not have enough food to cover their daily energy needs. Among the main factors that have contributed to increased food insecurity are those related to climate, particularly droughts. For example, in 2015-2016, the drought caused by El Niño resulted in losses of 50-90% of the harvest in the Dry Corridor of Central America, especially in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
Q: What are the challenges for the productivity of the agricultural sector in the region?
A - According to FAO projections, in 2050 the world's food production will have to increase by 50% in order to meet the demand. Latin America is one of the major food producing regions. On the other hand, family farms amount to about 81% of the agricultural holdings in Latin America. At a country level, family farming yields between 27% and 67% of the total food production; occupying between 12% and 67% of the farmed land and generating between 57% and 77% of the agricultural employment in the region.
The challenge is how to increase agricultural production in a sustainable way, and also in a way that makes it more resilient to climate variability and extreme weather events. This is especially important in the case of family farming, which is to a great extent the basis of food security, nutrition, and the livelihoods of many small farmers.
Irrigation improvement and development is key to increase and ensure the security of agriculture production; furthermore, it creates employment and improves farmers' income. According to FAO data (AQUASTAT) the potential land surface suitable for irrigation in the region is estimated to be 86.4 million hectares, of which only 17.8 million are currently equipped for irrigation, that is, a fifth of the potential area. Furthermore, irrigation is only used in 11% of the cultivated land surface in the region, which is below the global average (21%). Therefore, we have to work on the improvement and sustainable development of irrigation, promoting an integrated approach that encourages more sustainable, inclusive and resilient food systems, that can help eradicate hunger and poverty, and address climate change challenges in the region.
Q - What initiatives is the FAO implementing to address these challenges, and in which countries?
A - The FAO provides support to many countries in the region through different projects focused on supporting family farming and inclusive food systems, the sustainable use of natural resources, and climate change adaptation. For example, there is a project on Resilient Agriculture and Sustainable Management of Natural Resources in the Dominican Republic, prepared with the support of the cooperative programme between the FAO and the World Bank, and with a budget of 103 million US dollars. The objectives of this project are promoting the sustainable management of agricultural production systems, improving the resilience of irrigation infrastructure and increasing drinking water quality and access to it. In Ecuador, the Sustainable Family Farming Modernization Project has a budget amounting to 128 million US dollars, benefiting 10,500 families in 12,500 ha with irrigation technology. The FAO is also supporting the formulation and implementation of investment projects in several countries, including Peru, Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, Jamaica and Nicaragua. In addition to investment projects, the FAO carries out strategic studies, develops approaches and methodologies, and facilitates policy dialogue in order to improve water access and agricultural water management, fostering cooperation and the participation of different actors and economic sectors.
In 2050 the world's food production will have to increase by 50% in order to meet the demand
Q - What examples of success would you highlight?
A - For example, we are very pleased because the Green Climate Fund approved last October the RECLIMA project in the El Salvador Dry Corridor. The project, prepared jointly by the FAO and the government of El Salvador, has a budget of 127.7 million US dollars, contributed by the Green Climate Fund, the El Salvador Government, and the Initiative for the Americas Fund (FIAES). The project benefits 225,000 people, of whom 20,000 belong to indigenous communities, and where about 38% of households are headed by women. This project is a good example of an integrated project that seeks to transform food systems so they are more sustainable and climate resilient, working directly with family farmers to improve their production practices, improving their basic infrastructure and technical knowledge. Among the priorities of the project are improving access to water through the collection, storage and distribution of rainwater.
A successful example of regulatory work is the study on the potential expansion of irrigation in Argentina developed by the FAO and the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries of Argentina. This study has been the basis for the preparation of investment projects to develop new irrigation areas using public-private partnership schemes, and irrigation modernisation proposals that have been afterwards financed by funding entities such as the Development Bank of Latin America (CAF), the World Bank or the Inter-American Development Bank.