3Wetlands and Agriculture: Partners for Growth

World Wetlands Day (WWD) is celebrated on 2 February each year. It marks the date of the adoption of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands on 2 February 1971, in the Iranian city of Ramsar. Each year since 1997,government agencies, non-governmental organizations, and groups of citizens at all levels of the community have taken advantage of this opportunity to undertake actions aimed at raising public awareness of wetland values and benefits in general and the Ramsar Convention in particular.

2014 is the UN International Year of Family Farming. In support of the UN International Year of Family Farming, Ramsar’s theme for World Wetlands Day 2014 is Wetlands and Agriculture: Partners for Growth. It provides an ideal opportunity to highlight the importance of wetlands in supporting agriculture, especially since many family farming operations rely on the soils, water, plants and animals found in wetlands to provide food security and improve their livelihoods.

Wetlands have often been seen as a barrier to agriculture, and they continue to be drained and reclaimed to make farming land available. The natural wetland ecosystems reclaimed in this way have lost much of their original character, leading to reduced biodiversity and reduced performance of functions other than crop productivity. A realistic estimate is that 50 % of the world’s wetlands have been lost.

Is this justified since agriculture plays a major role in the lives and livelihoods of most households in Africa and contributes significantly to overall economic growth and Gross Domestic Product (GDP)? Yet agriculture is a primary water consumer and is subject to debate. How can the needs of agriculture be met as it intensifies to feed a growing population? Recently, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment has shown that global food production has doubled in the past 40 years, and has been able to keep pace with the increasing human population. However, the assessment also showed that this major accomplishment has been realized at the expense of major losses in biodiversity, disruption of global element cycles, problematic eutrophication and toxification of our freshwater resources, and loss of regulating ecosystem functions.

Whereas historically there was sufficient water for irrigation, and water resources could be utilized for agriculture, pressure is now mounting to reduce the amount of water allocated to agriculture. This pressure on water resources is brought about by the fact that Africa’s demand for water is rising fast, as population increases and urbanization, economic growth and climate change combine to exert ever-increasing pressure on dwindling supplies. Water shortages already threaten food production in many African regions, while the lack of clean water and sanitation leads to 1.5 million deaths a year from diarrhea and cholera. Yet Africa has substantial water resources: its shortages are often the result of poor water management, low investment, inefficient use and wastage. What contributions can a more water efficient agricultural sector make to African water security?

We think the answer lies in infrastructure for managing water. Good water governance, i.e. research institutes, education, extension service, water act and water rights. Water tariffs are sometimes controversial, but they play an important role in ensuring the long term sustainability of water and sanitation. However, proper consultation and regulation is important to ensure affordability through appropriate tariff structures or separate income support targeted to the poor.




Current Issue: Africa Water & Sanitation & Hygiene March-April 2017 Vol.12 No.2