The debate was coordinated by Anne-Cécile Bras, journalist at RFI. The speakers were Frédéric Apollin, Executive Director, Agronomists and Veterinarians without Borders (AVSF) ; Hassan Benabderrazik, economist and Moroccan consultant ; Guillaume Benoit, Member of the French General Council for Food, Agriculture and Rural Areas (CGAAER) ; Faliry Boly, Secretary General of the Office du Niger Producers’ Group and Stéphanie Leyronas, Head of the Water and Environment Program in AFD’s Research Division.
While we need 3 liters of drinking water a day, 1,000 times more are necessary to produce our food. Water may be an abundant resource around the world, but many regions suffer from water scarcity. The deterioration of productive systems, the lack of agricultural and rural development, climate change and increasing demographic pressure affect the availability of water resources in many parts of the world, jeopardizing the capacity of future generations to meet their needs. Ensuring access to food for 9.5 billion people by 2050 will require implementing ambitious local and national “water and agriculture” strategies tailored to each context.
Agriculture: Key to a sustainable use of water resources
As “agriculture will continue to be a major withdrawer of water resources” (Stéphanie Leyronas), the use that is made of water in this sector is key to sustainable development. The issue raises a whole host of challenges: environment, food security, climate, economic dynamics, equity and sustainability. A core objective must be to “create more employment in rural areas per quantity of water used” (Guillaume Benoît).
Succeeding in agricultural development, in particular by boosting family farming, requires collective systems of organization and policies for access to credit. At the same time, it is necessary to improve the effectiveness of agricultural systems and make them more sustainable, especially via an agroecological transition. Family farms can, for example, “ensure that there is a sustainable use of ecosystem resources” (Frédéric Apollin). A generation of “farmers-investors”, encouraged by the State, could develop sustainable solutions in the field which are likely to “secure […] the national heritage” (Faliry Boly).
The Green Morocco Plan was launched after the food crisis in 2007-2008 and is an example of massive investment in the agriculture sector. The Moroccan Government has “multiplied by 5 in 10 years” the budget allocated to agriculture. In areas under water stress, such as Chtouka-Moussa, institutional actors have blended “governance, participation, investments and technology”, with the aim of safeguarding jobs and establishing a more sustainable exploitation of groundwater. “Indeed, aquifers are often in a dramatic situation because resources are overexploited” (Hassan Benabderrazik).
Improve access to water resources and develop sustainable uses
Rural communities and public actors can improve the preservation, development and management of water resources by building infrastructure with varying levels of cost and setting up rules and tools such as “quotas, licenses, temporary restrictions”, or “economic instruments: pricing, subsidies for economical practices […], environmental taxes”. However, there is the risk that there will be “a series of negative impacts” (Stéphanie Leyronas). In addition to dams and transfers, heavy investments include desalinization, desalting and wastewater treatment: “In Israel, 85% of domestic effluents are used for agriculture once they have been treated” (Stéphanie Leyronas). But other “local water collection infrastructure is cost-effective and has proven its worth: small dikes, tanks, small dams and reservoirs” and therefore must not be overlooked (Frédéric Apollin). In the agriculture sector, irrigation is important because it “allows 3 times more to be produced on average than by rainfed agriculture. However, it is even more crucial to make progress with rainfed agriculture” (Guillaume Benoît).
But “working on the supply side is not enough” (Frédéric Apollin): it is also necessary to reflect on more sustainable uses of water resources. In Mali, faced with their scarcity, farmers adapt their farming techniques: “small dams, […] seeding ‘before the first rains’ […], mulch-based cropping (Faliry Boly). Beforehand, it is also necessary to raise the question of the future of “virtual water”, the water required to produce a product and which is wasted when the latter is lost: “In the South, on average, 30% of production never arrives on markets” (Frédéric Apollin).
Water sharing: Balance needs to be found between various actors and territories
The allocation of water resources poses a whole host of governance issues: “The problems of water sharing, monopolization, access, regulation and governance are urgent issues” (Hassan Benabderrazik).
Solutions need to be local and tailored to each context. Water is also not a “global public good”, but “a local public good” (Guillaume Benoit). Situations differ from one territory to another and the management in particular needs to be organized at a very local level. “In France and Spain, the governments have given rights and duties to communities of irrigators, organized as union associations which are corporations under public law”. Faced with the Andean drought, Ecuador is developing original solutions and consultation bodies on the use and protection of water which give a place to all users. But in Mali, for example, in associations like the Niger Basin Authority, “actors’ opinions are not always properly taken into account” (Faliry Boly). Yet for there to be equity, it is necessary to ensure that there is a mutual recognition of the organizations that will discuss the sharing, management and protection of a resource, in particular farmers’ organizations (Frédéric Apollin).
Listening to all actors also means ensuring that there are balances between rural and urban communities in a context of increasing urbanization. Yet cities tend to forget that they are dependent on rural areas for their food. Without remunerative prices, a number of farmers suffer from poverty or even hunger and are unable to effectively manage water resources and land. Rural exodus exports poverty to cities, and urban sprawl, which is a real waste of space, leads to the loss of a lot of land, including irrigated land.
Beyond regional or national territories, the right to agricultural water for food is an issue seized upon by international organizations. In a report submitted to the Committee on Food Security, a group of experts proposes “to extend the universal right to drinking water, which has today been acquired, to the right to agricultural water”: it would be an additional legal instrument for small producers (Frédéric Apollin).