“Every drop counts”: Interview with Patricia Mejías Moreno, coordinator of AQUASTAT (FAO)
Humans can survive on only a few sips of water a day. However, the food we eat leads to much more significant consumption: just think of the 15,000 litres needed to produce one kilo of beef. We spoke about the importance of this resource with Patricia Mejías Moreno, Coordinator of FAO’s AQUASTAT programme.
How serious is the global water problem?
The magnitude of the problem varies depending on the region. At the end of 2021, FAO published data showing that 10% of the population lives in countries with critical water shortages, meaning that they cannot meet their basic water needs.
Some countries have seasonal shortages, as is the case in the Mediterranean region, where there are periods of drought. There are also countries where water is available for consumption, but we can see that what seemed to be an abundant resource is becoming increasingly scarce for several reasons: because of the climate, because it rains differently, and also because there are more people, more uses and competition between different sectors.
In short, the level of scarcity is increasing. From 2015 to 2020, there has not been a hugely significant overall increase in water scarcity (18%). However, when analysing the river basin level, in almost all Latin American countries that have a great abundance of water, we can see shortages.
In Europe, on the other hand, the level of water stress is not very high, but if we look at the whole Mediterranean basin, the levels shoot up.
The aim of the 2030 Agenda is to alleviate this situation. Could you briefly explain what the most important points of SDG 6 are?
SDG 6 aims to achieve water and sanitation for all, as well as sustainable water management. Let’s not forget that its availability is very important for the fulfilment of other SDGs, such as SDG 1 (no poverty), SDG 2 (zero hunger), SDG 3 (good health and well-being), SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy) and SDG 13 (climate action).
The SDG 6 indicators not only look at access to drinking water, but also take into account water for the environment, for different uses, its quality, integrated management of water resources, efficient use, etc. This objective aims to achieve integral water progress and not only guarantee access to water.
What is FAO’s AQUASTAT portal and how does it contribute to achieving these goals?
AQUASTAT is in charge of collecting data on SDG 6.4 indicators related to water stress and efficient water use. FAO is a custodian agency; we collect data from all countries and contribute to the global report on all SDGs.
Right now, there is no information system in the world with as much experience as AQUASTAT; it has been around since 1994 and since that date has accumulated a lot of experience in terms of water measurement, important indicators and variables for measuring water, the extent of irrigation and water use for agriculture. These data are official at the global level and are provided by each country. It is a very valuable tool for policy makers and international organisations in both decision-making and project design.
Does the goal of ensuring water for all people conflict with other SDGs?
As in any development agenda that has many goals, there are synergies and conflicts. A lot of research has been done on this topic and the conclusion is that synergies are more important. An example of this is SDG 2 (zero hunger): to achieve this goal, production must be increased. By increasing it, especially in many areas where there is no rainwater and irrigation must be used, it also increases water consumption and may reduce progress on SDG 6.
However, actions are being promoted to make water use efficient, such as supporting the implementation of more modern techniques adapted to each context.
According to FAO, 70% of global freshwater consumption goes to agriculture. Mistakes are bound to be made in its management. Which are the most common?
There are all kinds of mistakes: technical, infrastructure, planning, lack of knowledge about crop needs and poor irrigation management. Another mistake is not backing an inclusive and fair water governance model. As a consequence, many irrigation plans are made that are not supported by governance models or policies that limit water consumption.
For example, solar pumps for water wells are now on the rise. This is a fantastic tool in areas without access to electricity. However, it is a double-edged sword because pumping water is free of charge and so many irrigators use it continuously. As a result, the water table is lowered, causing very serious environmental consequences. This happens because there is no legal basis for limiting water use or measuring surface water use. It is a very common mistake and FAO insists that it is not only about infrastructure, but that it must be supported by a water governance model.
There are several ancestral systems for water management. Do all traditions have to be maintained?
Traditional systems are usually highly adapted to the local context. Therefore, their technology will always be more resistant to change and better adapted to the social context and traditions of the area. It is true
that some things need modernising, but always taking the traditional systems into account and planning how to carry out the change.
FAO promotes working with farmers through participatory approaches because, at the end of the day, the farmers know their systems and the needs of their land. Local knowledge is very valuable, and it is important to highlight this not only because, sometimes, it is much more efficient than a modern irrigation system, but also because it has cultural value, as in the case of the Water Court of the plain of València. They are instruments with a historical value that must be preserved.
Where does the water for agriculture come from?
Irrigation can be fed from different sources. As well as surface water, such as lakes and rivers, there is groundwater. As a result of climate change, there is an increasing use of groundwater, because when it does not rain, we have to resort to water reservoirs. This is a problem because no one measures the water underneath, because it is not in sight. It is not the same as rivers or reservoirs, where the flow is evident. Groundwater is invisible and if there are no policies, there is no control. In addition, its mismanagement implies a problem for future generations because these deposits are finite.
There is currently an increase in the use of wastewater, which is treated and used for irrigation, called non-conventional water. There is also desalinated water, which is already beginning to be applied to irrigation in some countries.
Do you think we have an opportunity to start talking about water footprint in the same way we talk about carbon footprint?
There are already foods that are labelled according to their water footprint. This is a delicate issue, because although knowing this footprint is useful because it informs us of the amount of water used, it is also important to know where it comes from. For example, if rainwater is used to produce meat in a humid area of Brazil, it will have a high water footprint. However, it should also be noted that this is “green water”. This meat will not have the same impact as it would if it had been produced in North Africa, where water is scarce.
In short, talking about water footprint is a bit more complicated than carbon footprint because water is always moving and comes from many places. As it stands, water footprint only indicates the amount of water used. This is because there is a certain lack of knowledge about the origin of water. Water coming from deep water tables, which will not be renewed, has a much higher footprint than water coming from rain or a lagoon, for example. It is not the same thing.
What message would you like to send to our readers?
I would tell them that water is a scarce natural resource and that we must value it and remember that many people in the world do not have access to clean water and sanitation. That is enough, really. All our actions have an impact, and it is important not to waste it. Not only should we take it into account when it comes to the production of our food, but also in other matters, such as the clothes we choose to wear. Every drop counts!
Click here to see FAO’s recommendations on saving water.