Scaling up innovation, policies and investments in the water sector in the Near East and North Africa (NENA) region is fundamental "to prevent water scarcity from setting us back in our ambitious vision of eradicating all forms of malnutrition, sustaining peace and leaving no one behind", FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva said.
He spoke at the Near East and North Africa Land and Water Days Conference, hosted by the League of Arab States and co-organised by FAO, in Cairo, Egypt (31 March-4 April), which aims to review the progress made in addressing water scarcity in the region and foster knowledge-exchange among countries and partners.
Addressing the conference, Graziano da Silva said that while conflicts and extreme climatic events were contributing to the rising of hunger in the region, water scarcity was straining rural livelihoods, forcing people to migrate from rural to urban areas. He noted that "one out of three in the country side are considered poor as a result of water scarcity" in the region.
In order to efficiently tackle water deficits in the region, Graziano da Silva emphasized the need for a "new generation of policies and investments," pointing to the importance of establishing inter-ministerial coordination between water, food and trade policies as well as putting in place mechanisms that reward farmers for more efficient use of water and soil.
"It is also important to remember that water scarcity does not always emanate from the physical lack of water. Many areas suffer from water scarcity due to the lack of investments," he stressed.
Agriculture bears the brunt of water scarcity
In his remarks, Graziano da Silva noted that more frequent and intense heat waves and increasing water-stress would hit agriculture the hardest.
Therefore, it is fundamental to promote ways for food production to use less water, and use it more efficiently, for example, through the implementation of innovative irrigation technologies, the use of drought-resistant crops and livestock, and the spatial distribution of production, Graziano da Silva said.
"Sea-level rise and salinization of aquifers are also expected. Flooding and increased salinity of fresh water resources may affect key producing areas in the region, such as the Nile Delta," he warned.
Progress made by NENA countries
Graziano da Silva praised countries in the NENA region for their "great achievements in their long and continuous fight against water scarcity."
"The Gulf countries, for instance, are pioneers in the area of water desalination. Algeria, Morocco, Jordan and Tunisia have undertaken great efforts on water harvesting. Egypt and Lebanon are advancing rapidly in relation to drip irrigation. There is also substantial progress being made on treated wastewater," he said.
However, the FAO chief noted that despite all this progress, NENA countries should continue to look for innovative practices to face the challenges ahead, which are becoming increasingly complex.
Projections show that the frequency of drought could increase up to 60 per cent by the end of the century compared to current levels in the region.
"In fact, no other region has been as severely affected by desertification and water scarcity in the NENA region, mostly due to unsustainable land use patterns, soil erosion, sand and dust storms, deforestation and rapid degradation of rangelands," Graziano Da Silva said.
Water scarcity and obesity
In his address, Graziano da Silva also highlighted the adverse impacts of water scarcity on obesity. "As a result of water scarcity, the region's dependency on food imports is increasing. This can contribute to a rise in overweight and obesity. Global food markets have increased the accessibility of ultra-processed food that is very cheap but caloric and energy-dense, high in fat, sugar and salt," he said.
"In fact, a diet composed of local fresh foods is often costlier than a diet of imported ultra-processed foods. Here in the NENA region, the proportion of obese adults is about 30 percent, according to the World Health Organization. In some countries of the region, this figure can reach almost 40 percent," he said, highlighting the need to discuss food trade regulations that address the imports of unhealthy food.
Farmers as part of the solution
Noting that farmers and rural households should be at the center of the strategies to address water scarcity, he said: "Not only to encourage them to adopt more efficient technologies, but also to secure access to drinking water for rural households. This is vital for food security and improved nutrition".
Reducing food loss and waste is also important to preserve natural resources, especially fresh water, but also soils and agricultural land, Graziano da Silva said.
All of these measures require intensive research, adequate infrastructure and an appropriate institutional framework, he noted.
Graziano da Silva added that the FAO Regional Initiative on Water Scarcity for the NENA region, launched in 2013, had been supporting countries in tackling each of these challenges.
At the conference earlier this week, FAO launched new irrigation investment guidelines, introducing innovative approaches, tools and resources to tackle irrigation development challenges, like water scarcity, competition over shared natural resources and the impact of climate change.
Enhancing regional collaboration
Today, FAO also signed an agreement with the Arab Organization for Agricultural Development (AOAD) to strengthen an ongoing partnership and boost joint efforts in areas including food security in conflict-affected countries, agriculture and fishery investment, planning and training for policy analysis in agriculture, combating transboundary animal diseases, and development of date palm sector through value chains methodology.