FAO, IWMI Explore Agriculture’s Role in Water Pollution
UN Photo/Mark Garten
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The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) and the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems, led by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), have launched the executive summary of a book titled, 'Water Pollution from Agriculture: A Global Review'.

The book investigates the role of crop and livestock production and aquaculture in the deterioration of water quality, and examines agricultural contributors to water pollution.

27 August 2017: Agricultural pressures on water quality have intensified, with significant negative impacts on human health and the environment, according to the executive summary of a book titled, ‘Water Pollution from Agriculture: A Global Review.’ Published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) and the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems, led by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), the report explores agriculture’s role in water pollution.

The summary estimates the environmental and social costs of water pollution caused by agriculture to be in the billions of dollars annually. Approximately 38% of the European Union’s water areas are affected by agricultural pollution, while in the US, agriculture is the main source of pollution in rivers and streams. In China, agriculture is responsible for significant surface-water pollution and almost all groundwater pollution by nitrogen, which poses risks to aquatic ecosystems, human health and productive activities. Veterinary medicines, such as antibiotics, vaccines and growth promoters, are also causing pollution as they move from farms to drinking water.

Eduardo Mansur, Director of FAO’s Land and Water Division, said that agricultural pollution has surpassed pollution from settlements and industries as the primary contributor to inland and coastal water degradation. The sector is responsible for 70% of water withdrawals, and contributes to water pollution, as farms discharge agrochemicals, organic matter, drug residues, sediments and saline into water bodies. The summary points to “hotspots” where crop production, livestock and aquaculture significantly contribute to water-quality degradation, underscoring that aquaculture alone has expanded 20-fold since the 1980s, especially in Asia, due, in part, to rapid population growth, dietary change and rising food demand.

Agricultural pollution has surpassed pollution from settlements and industries as the primary contributor to inland and coastal water degradation, according to Eduardo Mansur, Director of FAO’s Land and Water Division.

The report emphasizes modeling and monitoring to more effectively manage water quality, better understand current conditions and their impacts, and ensure agricultural policies, strategies and actions that mitigate negative impacts on water resources. It outlines various responses, including those aimed at influencing drivers of unsustainable agriculture intensification, such as reducing food waste, and those focused on creating incentives for adopting practices that prevent pollution at its source. It also highlights the need for research and data to ensure such measures are effective.

The report details policies and incentives to reduce pollution, including: encouraging more sustainable and healthy diets; minimizing food loss and waste; and combining regulations, economic incentives and information in responses. Other ways to prevent pollution include in-farm practices in crop production, livestock and aquaculture, such as: management measures that limit and optimize the type, amount and timing of applications of organic and inorganic fertilizers and pesticides to crops; establishment of protection zones along surface watercourses within farms and in buffer zones around farms; and efficient irrigation schemes that reduce water return flows.

Regarding aquatic ecosystems and surface water bodies, the report recommends riparian buffer strips or constructed wetlands. It also suggests integrated farming to ensure that waste from one area is used elsewhere, and explains that designing cost-effective measures to prevent pollution and mitigate risks requires that managers, planners and lawmakers are knowledgeable about aquatic ecosystems, drivers that lead to water-quality degradation, and the impacts of such degradation on human health and the environment.

The book was released during World Water Week in Stockholm, Sweden. [IWMI Press Release] [FAO Press Release] [Executive Summary: Water Pollution from Agriculture: A Global Review]


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