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World Water Day

March 14, 2010

By Ernesto Ordoñez
First Posted 05:01:00 03/16/2007

MANILA, Philippines — March 22 is World Water Day.

“UN Water has identified water scarcity as the theme for World Water Day 2007,” says the World Water Day website. “This day will provide an opportunity to reflect on the challenges posted by the unsustainable increase in water use and its degradation across the globe.”

At a meeting on March 8, leaders of the Alyansa Agrikultura [Agricultural Alliance] recommended that on World Water Day a call be made to convene a national multi-sector water conference and address the crisis, especially as it occurs in the Philippines.

A more serious problem

The United Nations defines water scarcity as “the point at which the aggregate impact of all users impinges on the supply or quality of water under prevailing institutional arrangements to the extent that the demand by all sectors, including the environment, cannot be satisfied fully.”

Water scarcity is a more serious problem than most people realize. A major study completed only this year, titled, “The Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture,” reveals that one in three people today face water shortages.

It states the following grim facts:

“Around 1.2 billion people, or almost a fifth of the world’s population, live in areas of physical scarcity, and 500 million are approaching this situation. Another 1.6 billion people, or almost a quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage where countries lack the necessary infrastructure to take water from rivers and aquifers.”

Below is a table that shows how water is distributed.

USE OF WATER Water (liters) Proportionate Use (times)

Food Production 2,000-3,000 1000
Domestic Needs 20-300 10 to 100
Drinking Water 2-3 1

From the above table, we conclude that there is much potential for increasing the efficiency of water used in agriculture.

Chile model

Chile is often cited for its citizens’ increasing efficiency in the use of water through market based mechanisms. Tradable water rights were institutionalized, private markets developed, and water rights traded as a commodity.

The reforms in that country increased the scarcity value of water and created incentives for investment in efficiency gains. As a result, sophisticated efficient water management systems were put in place. In a period of 15 years, irrigation efficiency increased by 22-26 percent. This is the equivalent of freeing up an additional 264,000 hectares for crops and saving P20 billion for developing water supplies.

However, there is a downside to this. Water scarcity prices did not reflect the cost of environmental damage because environmental externalities are not adequately priced in the free market.

Reforms are now being made to realign private markets with public interest. Regulatory provisions are being formulated to restrict speculative activity, dismantle monopolies, and strengthen environmental protections.

Low- technology solutions

Since agriculture consumes 70 percent of all water, we must immediately look to this area for efficiency improvements, especially since they directly impact the poor.

Today, innovation is creating conditions in which smaller, poorer farmers can join the technological revolution in water management.

Micro-level irrigation is at the cutting edge of emerging water management technologies, and has tremendous potential. Drip technology uses less water than surface technology, delivering it directly to the crop, and reducing salinization and water-logging.

Technologies have become cheaper and thus more accessible to small farmers. Cheap, small-scale bucket-and-drip kits have been developed for vegetable cultivation on household plots. One model uses off-the-shelf cloth filters and plastic containers to replace sensitive metallic emitters, thus reducing the costs of irrigation to $250 a hectare. Because of this technology in many countries, the area under cultivation has doubled with the same amount of water. More studies have shown that drip techniques cut water use by 30-60 percent and boost yields by 5-50 percent. Farmers in Burkina Faso, Kenya and Sudan claim threefold to fourfold yield increases using drip irrigation and hand-watering from water-harvesting tanks.

Another innovation is the treadle pump. This is a cheap and affordable technology (P600-P1,500) that draws water from groundwater sources close to the surface to irrigate up to 0.5 hectare. This has resulted in documented annual returns of investment of 130-850 percent when combined with market-oriented production.

Commenting on the use of low-cost irrigation technologies, the United Nations 2006 Human Development states: “Working on observed returns to current investment, it has been estimated that the adoption of new technologies by 100 million small farmers could generate net benefits of $100 billion or more. Including the multiplier effects of increased demand, investment and employment, total net benefits could rise threefold, increasing annual incomes by up to $500 for those living on less that $1 a day.

Farmers’ role

During World Water Day next week, it is hoped that one of the events will be an announcement that there will be a national multi-sector water conference.

It is also hoped that agriculture will play an important part, with women farmers taking a leadership role.

This will provide not only the growth, but also the equity and gender perspective, so necessary in addressing the water crisis effectively.

For more information on this, please contact Agnes Balota at +632 9271875.

The author is chairman of Agriwatch, former Cabinet secretary for Presidential Flagship Programs and Projects, former undersecretary of agriculture and former undersecretary of trade and industry. For inquiries and suggestions, e-mail or call or fax +632 8522112.

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