05/17/2012 10:36 am ET Updated Jul 17, 2012

Food Security Means Water Too

This piece is part of a series of blogs by leading NGOs to call attention to a range of issues that should be raised at the G8 summit at Camp David in rural Maryland from May 18-19.

As G-8 leaders hold their lengthy discussions about the challenges facing the world, they can reach out to the glass in front of them for a refreshing sip of water. What a luxury! In most places in the world, a sip of water could cause diarrhea or other water-born illness. A bottle of clean water could cost the equivalent of a day's wage.

Reading the latest research about water scarcity in the Middle East, where ANERA works, I was dismayed by statistics that reveal a harsh reality facing one of the world's most arid regions. Experts predict the available water supply in 2050 will be half what it is today for a population that is growing by an average 3 percent a year. And yet, more than 70 percent of scarce water resources are used for agriculture.

The challenge of providing clean water is exacerbated by natural and man-made conditions on and under the ground: desertification, encroaching sea water, natural evaporation, wasteful management, pollution from agriculture run-off -- to name a few. Nonprofit development and humanitarian organizations can do a lot but it takes political will on the part of governments around the globe to find and implement solutions.

The UN children's agency UNICEF estimates that 95 percent of Gaza's groundwater, for example, is unfit to drink. The unclean water poses enormous health risks and increases the financial burden for poor families who have to purchase their water trucked into their communities.

When talking about their commitment to food security, G-8 leaders must not ignore the importance of water to sustaining agricultural development and nourishing the world's ever-growing population with clean water. Water shortages, security experts warn, could destabilize governments no longer able to produce enough food, provide clean drinking water or generate energy.

Water knows no boundaries but competition between neighbors over access and distribution of the precious resource raises tensions and the threat of conflict. Relations often have been strained between Turkey, Iraq and Syria over sharing waters of the Euphrates River. Jordan, Israel and the Palestinians compete over what flows from dwindling Jordan and Yarmuk rivers.

Instead of competing for water, states need to cooperate on ways to develop more efficient agricultural methods that reduce dependence on the scarce resource. With leadership and support of the G-8 governments, public and private sectors can work together to find new ways to provide clean drinking water and reduce water-born diseases that claim millions of lives every day.

We need better water conservation and education programs to promote more efficient farming techniques and water management that can help communities cope. Farmers need encouragement and incentives to replace water-thirsty crops like bananas, oranges and strawberries and to implement water-conservation programs. That is for today. We also need to intensify research and expand development programs to secure longer-term solutions that can help less developed nations face the challenge of water scarcity.

The G-8 pledged three years ago to lead the global effort in agriculture and food security. Only seven of some 40-plus nations who signed the L'Aquila Initiative have followed through on their pledges to create sustainable development programs.

Now is not the time to give up. The water-glass is half empty.

ANERA (American Near East Refugee Aid) has been a leading provider of development, health, education and employment programs to Palestinian communities and impoverished families throughout the Middle East for more than 40 years.

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