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It is time to address water and food scarcity in NENA

The Near East and North Africa (NENA) region, one of the most arid areas of the world, has been grappling with water scarcity for thousands of years. It was in this region that irrigation techniques were first introduced, and that some of the most fundamental crops for humanity were cultivated for the first time. Egypt, for example, was long the world’s breadbasket for of staple grains.

Times have changed. Demographic growth, environmental degradation, and climate change – all occurring amid complex geopolitical and economic dynamics – are adding further stress to water resources. At the same time, rapid urbanization, paired with rising incomes and changing lifestyles, means that the demand for food and the water to produce this food will continue to grow.

By 2050, the region’s population is expected to double and reach nearly 668 million people, of which about 400 million will live in growing cities. These high rates of population growth – about two percent annually compared to a world average of 1.1 percent – are putting pressure on already scarce arable land and water resources.

The impacts of climate change, such as higher temperatures, changing patterns of evaporation from land and oceans, and increasing crop water requirements, are already deteriorating water availability in the region. In fact, renewable fresh water availability per capita has been fast decreasing over the last five decades. This has placed considerable pressure on agricultural production, turning the region into one of the largest importers of food, particularly wheat and other cereals.

Projections show that the frequency of drought could increase by 20 to 60 percent by the end of the century compared to current levels. In fact, no other region has been as severely affected by desertification as the NENA region, mostly caused by unsustainable land use patterns, deforestation, and the overgrazing and rapid degradation of rangelands. Unless action is taken, the region may face heavy economic losses due to climate change-induced water scarcity.

All of this is happening in a context where conflicts and instability are taking a heavy toll on the societies and economies in the region. Hunger and poverty are on the rise again. Household food insecurity and undernourishment are concentrated in the poorest and most conflict-stricken nations. Stunted growth affects over one-fifth of the region’s under-five population.

There is an urgent need to act now on the triple challenge of sustainable water management, climate change, and food security and nutrition. A range of solutions, when implemented together, can deliver on these three fronts.

The first imperative is to end conflicts so that attention and resources can be concentrated on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The second is to achieve greater complementarity between the region’s policies on food security, water and agriculture, and energy and environment. And the third is to build productive and resilient food systems that simultaneously generate employment and protect natural resources.

It is important to move from costly and unsustainable self-sufficiency policies to self-reliance policies, making use of the region’s comparative advantages to boost production of nutritious food. Reducing food losses and waste is also essential. It is unacceptable that a region so water scarce and so dependent on food imports loses more than 30 percent of its food each year.

We need to implement and massively scale up tools – which already exist – to improve water use efficiency, increase availability of water, and allow for strategic planning. Despite its wealth of human and other resources, the region should increase the use of existing technologies in treated wastewater, water harvesting, irrigation, and the monitoring of water consumption.

Policies and mechanisms rewarding farmers who make more efficient and sustainable use of water must be put in place. Incentives can be crafted to accelerate broader adoption of technologies and practices that increase agriculture productivity and improve water efficiency and soils management.

Scheduled between 31 March and 4 April 2019, the NENA Water Days Conference in Cairo will review the progress made in addressing water scarcity in the region, chart the way forward taking into account the lessons learned, and foster exchange of knowledge and experience among countries and partners.

The countries of the region cannot do this alone. They will need support from partners, including the United Nations system. The Food and Agriculture Organization stands ready to support the needed transformation in the agriculture and food security policies.