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Drought, Shortages, Rising Food Prices for World Water Week

27 August 2012

ANALYSIS - This week is World Water Week - a week when governments, environmental organisations, industry and agriculture is turning its attention to the importance of this vital resource, writes Chris Harris.

It is ironic and apposite that it is taking place at a time when the US in particular is experiencing one of the worst droughts it can remember and when once again parts of Eastern Europe have also been hit by drought to say nothing of the common regions for water shortage in Africa.

Part of the aim of this focus week is to turn attention on the regions where populations do not have supplies of safe water to drink and water for sanitation.

In Europe, Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs said that water and sanitation is one of the four Millennium Development Goals being targeted with a cash injection of €266 million.

However, he added: "But water is not only vital for drinking and hygiene purposes, it is also key to agriculture. Worldwide, 70 per cent of water is used as irrigation water to grow food, for example, and in some developing countries, this figure increases to over 85 per cent. It's clear that access to water and food security are therefore closely interlinked.

Sustainable agriculture and food and nutrition security are at the top of the EU's long-term development cooperation agenda. We are determined to enhance our support to provide the three key requirements of water, energy and food.

In World Water Week, I'd urge other donors, partners and the private sector to join us and help us turn the tide and do all we can to preserve our precious water supplies before it's too late."

In once example of water conservation measures being aided by the millennium initiative, Commissioner Piebalgs highlighted the work being carried out in Zambia.

"Zambia offers a good example of using water efficiently by using "conservation agriculture" as a production system," he said.

"This sustainable agricultural method, which has already been adopted by 20% of Zambian farmers (250,000), uses principles like continuous soil cover (using plants to prevent soil erosion) and crop rotations (the successive planting of different crops on the same land to improve soil fertility).

"The results are more than promising and show us the way forward: the water capacity of the soil is increased and more nutrients are available for crops. As a result, fields using this system produce almost three times more than those using conventional agricultural methods in Zambia.

"In Zimbabwe, food insecurity is very common, as low and uneven rainfall leads to crop failures. Yet by providing irrigation schemes in more than 90 local communities, we are making a great deal of difference to thousands of smallholder farmers who can both grow enough food to eat, through the production of maize, and secure an income, through the production of vegetables."

But closer to home, the effects of a lack of water in essential growing areas is being felt by the entire globe.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations when releasing its most recent global food price index also issued a severe warning over the potential for a worldwide disaster the droughts and even untimely and excessive rainfall are having.

"The severe deterioration of maize crop prospects in the United States following extensive drought damage pushed up maize prices by almost 23 per cent in July," the FAO said.

"International wheat quotations also surged 19 per cent amid worsened production prospects in the Russian Federation and expectations of firm demand for wheat as feed because of tight maize supplies.

"However, international rice prices remained mostly unchanged in July, with the FAO overall Rice Price index stable at 238, barely one point above June.

"July also saw a sharp increase in the FAO Sugar Price Index, which leaped 12 per cent, or 34 points, from June to a new level of 324 points. The upturn, ending a steady fall since March, was triggered by untimely rains in Brazil, the world's largest sugar exporter, which hampered sugarcane harvesting. Concerns over India's delayed monsoon and poor rains in Australia also contributed."

The concern that these severe weather conditions are having on crops for both food and animal feed has put the French government, which chairs AMIS, the information system in agricultural markets, on alert.

The French agriculture minister, Stéphan Le Foll, has warned that is it poised to recall the rapid response forum established by the G20 and which the US will take over the presidency in October, if the situation worsens.

Mr Le Foll said he is monitoring the upward shift in grain prices because of the deteriorating harvest in the US and he issued a reminder of the commitments made by the G20 over the need to take measures if imbalances occurred between supply and demand.

This week the German agriculture minister, Ilse Aigner, is visiting South America with the grain and feed crisis top of her agenda.

The focus of the discussions will be against the background of strong yield losses from the devastating drought in the US and other adverse weather in other producing countries in the world, the price increases for food and feed and their disturbing effects on the situation of hungry people in developing countries, Ms Aigner said.

"We need to put together everything we can to avoid the situation on the world agricultural markets being further exacerbated. Supplying people with food aid needs in agricultural production have top priority," Ms Aigner said in Berlin on Friday.

While most of the world's eyes are turned towards the situation in the US and the global markets are waiting to see the actual yields and quality of the grain coming off the US fields this harvest the dire situation in Eastern Europe and in particular Russia cannot be overlooked.

Russian Agriculture Minister Nikolai Fyodorov last week said on state television that the country will be exporting less corn than expected this year.

While he said he was opposed to a total ban on exports as had occurred two years ago, during the drought of 2010, he warned there would be restricted supplies on the market.

This is likely to have a direct effect on European feed, livestock and meat markets.

Mr Fyodorov said that large customers such as Egypt would receive the volumes already agreed.

Because of the drought, the Russian grain harvest is much lower than expected at the beginning of the year, when the forecast was at 94 million tonnes - similar to 2011 figures.

Russian authorities then put grain production at 80 million tonnes.

Minister Fyodorov on Thursday last week again revised the forecast down by 5 million tons.

"Unfortunately we are changing our calculations almost daily," he said.

The convention on World Water Week covering water and food security takes place in Stockholm this week. Picture courtesy of the Stockholm International Water Institute.

Chris Harris, Editor-in-Chief

Chris Harris, Editor-in-Chief



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