Ladies and gentlemen,
At IFAD, we know about water because agriculture is a thirsty business, and our business is agriculture.
About 70 per cent of the fresh water consumed in the world goes to agriculture. We must never forget that without water security, there is no food security.
For the people we work with – the smallholder farmers, nomadic herders and the many others who depend on the bounty of the land and sea – water has always been a precious resource.
Today it is more precious than ever.
Too much, or too little, water threatens our ability to feed ourselves. Rising seas and torrential rains can be every bit as damaging as droughts and rising thermometers.
My colleague and host, Director-General José Graziano da Silva, has shared some of the data that underline just how challenging the years ahead will be. What I would like to share with you, today, are some of the miracles we at IFAD see every day taking place in some of the most marginal and ecologically fragile areas of the world.
It is these daily miracles that give me hope for the future.
In the Sahel, at the southern edge of the Sahara desert, rainfall is little and unreliable, and devastating droughts occur in two out of every five years. And today drought has once more led to a food crisis that is threatening the lives of millions of people.
For more than two decades now, IFAD has worked with farmers to change their farming practices, to introduce micro irrigation, to improve on traditional water harvesting methods – such as digging traditional planting pits before the onset of the rains -- and to nurture native trees and plants that lock moisture, and nutrients, into the soil.
Evidence shows that the villages that have implemented re-greening activities have higher incomes, more reliable access to food and lower rates of infant mortality.
Last year I visited Zongbèga, a village in a drought-prone region of Burkina Faso, where smallholders are using simple water harvesting techniques such as planting pits and permeable rock dams, along with crop-livestock integration. As a result, they have restored land that was once degraded and have increased their productivity.
Miracles are also taking place on the other side of the globe. At a project in the Peruvian Altiplano, the native indigenous communities have always had to contend with a harsh environment and extreme temperature fluctuations. In recent years, temperature variations and water shortages have become worse.
But today, the local population is better fed and livestock is thriving. Why? Because families have rediscovered traditional irrigation methods and are using them. They are diversifying their crops. They are planting trees that serve as wind breaks and stabilize the soil on the slopes. They are also using stones as heat reservoirs, soaking up warmth from the sun during the day and releasing it slowly at night to reduce freezing.
And I will never forget my visit to the South Gansu province of China. It is an area that suffers from frequent drought, limited water for irrigation and severe soil erosion. Yet the farmers I met were not only feeding themselves and their families, they were also increasing their incomes. They were doing this by using basic but effective environmental practices such as rainwater harvesting, mulching maize, terracing and using trees to improve soil quality and moisture content.
One farmer told me his gross income had risen to about US$35 a day from only US$2-a-day in 2006.
The participation of local people is fundamental to the success of development programmes for water and food security. If you go into the countryside of any developing country, you will see signs of failed development projects, such as abandoned terraces built to conserve water and soil on hillsides. These are sad evidence of what happens when local people are not part of the process, when they are not convinced that they will grow more food and earn more money by changing their practices.
So, at IFAD, we always start our projects by listening. As we listen to the local community, and as we address their needs and concerns, the project participants take ownership of their own development. These are the projects that are most likely to succeed.
In Niger, a water harvesting project in the Illela department is still going, more than 15 years after the funding ended. This is the difference between community-driven development and donor-imposed projects.
We also listen because local people have local knowledge. They know the times of flooding, the high water marks, which areas are most affected by water scarcity, and which crops and livestock respond best during droughts.
This knowledge can also be shared further afield. We must continue to build knowledge networks and communities of practice, such as the Water for Food initiative which helps farmers from around the world share their experiences and best practices.
As we consider the impact that climate change is having on food security, we must also consider how to reward poor rural people for environmental services. When poor rural people manage their uphill fields through better soil and water conservation, they improve their yields and also improve the water that flows to downstream users.
For example, in Kenya, river water users’ associations are now managing their watersheds. With the support of the government, and of IFAD, association members are planting trees and ground cover to protect riverbeds and natural springs. They also monitor the pollution and sediment levels of the rivers.
In the words of one member, “Before the rivers were brown after the rains, now they stay clear.”
These are just a few examples of the small miracles that we see every day. In each case, they are the result of thoughtful and consistent development efforts. They are the result of farmers having the right policy support and the right training. They are the result of rural people being connected to markets and having access to financial services and agricultural technologies. They are the result of farming in ways that respond to and respect the physical environment.
And these daily miracles are the result of the investment and commitment to rural areas made by central and local governments, and by the local population itself. Long-term support from institutions like IFAD can help sustain and scale up these solutions.
Today, as we focus our attention on water, let us remember that water security goes hand-in-hand with food security.
Let us work for a world where everyone has access to sufficient clean water, for a world where every woman, every man and most importantly, every child, has enough to eat and drink, where they can live healthy lives and fulfil their potential.
Rome, 22 March 2012