22.03.2019 |

UN report calls for better access to water for small-scale farmers

Farmers need access to water (Photo: CC0)

Access to water and sanitation is a human right. However, billions of people are still living without safe water and sanitation facilities, with wide disparities between the rich and the poor. This is the message of the UN World Water Development Report, launched on 19 March three days ahead of World Water Day. Some 2.1 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water and 4.5 billion people lack safely managed sanitation facilities. “The stakes are high: nearly a third of the global population do not use safely managed drinking water services and only two fifths have access to safely managed sanitation services. The intensification of environmental degradation, climate change, population growth and rapid urbanisation also pose considerable challenges to water security,” UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay wrote in the foreword to the report. “The numbers speak for themselves. As the report shows, if the degradation of the natural environment and the unsustainable pressure on global water resources continue at current rates, 45% of global Gross Domestic Product and 40% of global grain production will be at risk by 2050. Poor and marginalized populations will be disproportionately affected, further exacerbating already rising inequalities” warned Gilbert F. Houngbo, Chair of UN-Water.

The report highlights that the global figures hide significant inequities between and within regions, countries, communities and even neighbourhoods. Of the 159 million people still collecting untreated drinking water directly from surface water sources, 58% live in Sub-Saharan Africa. Only 24% of the population there have access to safe drinking water, and only 28% have basic sanitation facilities that are not shared with other households. Significant discrepancies in access also exist within countries, notably between the rich and the poor. In urban areas, the disadvantaged living in slums without running water often pay 10 to 20 times more for water purchased from water vendors or tanker trucks than people in wealthier households with running water. Women and girls regularly experience discrimination and inequalities in the enjoyment of their human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the burden of collecting water lies mainly on women and girls, many of whom spend more than 30 minutes on each journey to fetch water. Without safe, accessible water and sanitation, these people are likely to face multiple challenges, including poor health and living conditions, malnutrition, and lack of opportunities for education and employment, the report warns.

The world’s water is a stressed resource. Water use has been increasing worldwide by about 1% per year since the 1980s, driven by a combination of population growth, socio-economic development and changing consumption patterns. Global water demand is expected to continue increasing at a similar rate until 2050, accounting for an increase of 20 to 30% above the current level of water use, mainly due to rising demand in the industrial and domestic sectors. Over 2 billion people live in countries experiencing high water stress, and about 4 billion people experience severe water scarcity during at least one month of the year. Stress levels will continue to increase as demand for water grows and the effects of climate change intensify. The report observes a significant rise in water-related conflicts: During the period 2000–2009, there were 94 registered conflicts where water played a role. This figure increased to 263 registered conflicts in the period 2010–2018.

Access to water is particularly important for small-scale farmers across the globe. “Smallholder family farmers constitute the backbone of national food supplies, contributing more than half of the agricultural production in many countries. Yet, it is in the rural areas that poverty, hunger and food insecurity are most prevalent,” according to the report. “Equitable access to water for agricultural production, even if only for supplemental watering of crops, can make the difference between farming as a mere means of survival and farming as a reliable source of livelihoods.” This is even more important in the context of climate change. However, water infrastructure remains extremely sparse in poor rural areas. Yet, millions of smallholder family farmers find ways of accessing, storing and conducting water to their crops to make up for water deficits during periods of dry spells or the dry season. Despite their often high level of water (and land) productivity and their crucial role in contributing to national food security, smallholders tend to be overlooked when it comes to water use rights or the allocation of public subsidies for the establishment of irrigation infrastructure. Greater recognition of the water-related needs of small-scale farmers is needed, concludes the report. (ab)

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