Message from the Director General

Celebrating World Water Day 2012,
‘Water and Food Security’

22 March 2012
Kathmandu, Nepal

We all know that water is essential for drinking, health, cleanliness, electricity, and the environment, but most people tend to underestimate the importance of water for food production. We also tend to take for granted the many actions required to manage water to get it to our houses or to farmers’ fields, or to produce electricity. This is especially true in the mountain regions of the Hindu Kush Himalayas, where water is abundant in nature but at the same time many people feel the pinch of water shortages.

The amount of water required to produce food is staggering. Between 500 to 1,500 litres of water are needed to produce a kilogram of wheat, and about 10 times more to produce a kilogram of meat. This is huge compared to the 50 or 500 litres per day for household consumption. Globally about 70% of water diversions are for irrigation, and in the Hindu Kush Himalayas this portion reaches 90%. Looking to the future, the challenge gets bigger. With urbanization trends and the growing wealth of part of the population, peoples’ diets tend to include increasing amounts of ‘water-rich’ food. Some estimates say that the world will need 70% more food in the future, and if wealthier populations don’t change their food habits, this could require up to 70% to 100% more water from rain and rivers. Consumption of these quantities will have huge social and environmental consequences. On top of this is the amount of water required for cities, and the amount of water required to produce the energy we need – although most of the water flowing through turbines is usually available downstream for reuse. 

The Hindu Kush Himalayas are blessed with water resources from rain, or in the form of snow and ice. Frozen water is released slowly in the spring and summer when crops are grown in the ten great river basins of the greater Himalayas – the Amu Darya, Indus, Tarim, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween, Mekong, Yangtze, and Yellow. Seventy percent of the world’s irrigation is in Asia, much of it from these waters. These basins are the breadbaskets of Asia. Yet our mountain snow and ice is under threat from global warming.

Will there be enough water to meet the rising demand? Climate change is already being felt in the greater Himalayas with glacier retreat and changing snow and rain patterns. Can the Himalayas continue to supply the water required for today and for the future? No one has an answer to this question yet. First, the effects of environmental and socioeconomic changes on water demand and availability are extremely complex to predict, and second, the countries of the region do not have sufficient data and observations to input into scientific models. It is difficult to make measurements high, high in the mountains. ICIMOD and our partners are working on it though, and this is an area where we can make a mark.

We cannot afford to wait until we get the answer about future water availability to take action. Good water management will go a long way to meet the climate change challenges of tomorrow. There is a need for good water governance to serve people in dry and wet years. Water must be stored for dry periods – in small tanks, as ice, in the soil, and underground. We know how to do this. We can draw many examples from indigenous technologies and management approaches found across the Himalayas.

The difficult part is that most of the region’s major rivers cross national and administrative boundaries. The people of the region need to share these waters, their benefits, and the costs of development. This will require a joint understanding of how these great water systems work. An important step in regional cooperation is to share the technical knowledge and experience of practitioners, farmers, and scientists with policy makers. ICIMOD plays this knowledge sharing role.

How we all manage water will be a measuring stick for humanity in the first half of the 21st century. Failure to manage it well could lead to conflict, poverty, food insecurity, and malnutrition. Success could lead to greater prosperity and better wellbeing for us all. Let us go for success by taking better care of our water systems.

With best wishes,
David Molden