ROME: At the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) conference on the Near East, the talk is all about water scarcity, sustaining small family farms and creating “resilient” agriculture.
But however noble the aims and urgent the need, the fact is that there is barely a corner of the Middle and Near East that is not beset by conflict. How can the FAO persuade people to think about water management when they fear for their livelihoods or even their lives?
It is a problem Abdessalam Ould Ahmed grapples with every day as the assistant director-general of the organization, the agricultural development arm of the UN, which is based in Rome.
“It’s true that the full benefits of development are only felt when there is peace and stability. But we cannot wait for peace. Our plan, and the philosophy of the UN, is to do development work despite the conflict and the crises,” he said.
“We need to give hope, to lay the foundations for peace and give people the means to survive, to resist. We need to give some optimism.”
Against the backdrop of the horrific wars in Syria and Yemen and the more low-level unrest across the Arab world — from the dispute over Spanish Sahara in Ould Ahmed’s native Mauritania to the sporadic violence of Iraq — talk of optimism seems facile. But the ADG, a softly spoken 59-year-old with the air of a kindly professor, is most insistent.
The FAO has 50 staff in Yemen who have remained throughout the three-year war, he said. “They are in all parts of the country, even in Sanaa and Taiz. They distribute seeds, do livestock vaccination, rehabilitate water canals, do small-scale irrigation. They train farmers in the use of techniques and equipment. In fact, we have increasing our programs year after year in Yemen.”
The same goes for Syria, he added.
All of that work involves constant negotiation and renegotiating with groups and/or individuals on the ground who may be hostile or corrupt, or both.
“We have to be totally impartial but we have developed a good methodology over time of how to interview locals and form an objective assessment.
“The tragic thing is not only the destruction of livelihoods and the social fabric, but that conflict completely distracts from finding solutions to the big problems of tomorrow.”
In this, Ould Ahmed readily admits the FAO, and by extension the entire UN behemoth, is as guilty as anyone.
“We should have been dealing with these issues 15 years ago, not now. The World Economic Forum analyzed the risks facing the world and put water scarcity at number one. Water scarcity is the biggest threat in the region that is the least prepared for it. There are still some decision-makers who don’t realize the scale of the problem. It’s always possible to overuse water without paying the price in the short term. It has come too late, but today countries are moving forward.
“Ten years ago it was difficult to advise Saudi Arabia not to use water for the expansion of its wheat production. Cereals need a lot of water. They were growing so much wheat they were using it for animal feed. That has changed. Saudi Arabia has developed its own strategy. They have joined three ministries together to take responsibility for water and agriculture. It’s a good approach because it means one element cannot ignore the consequences for the others.
“And their policies have put nutrition at the center of this strategy. They are phasing out wheat because there isn’t enough water. They are working toward a realistic level of self-sufficiency.”
The UAE is trying to limit extreme water use in agriculture by diversifying its food. “As a wealthy country, they can afford the latest techonology. And they really must stop wasting so much food.”
The FAO has 194 member countries, of which 53 are involved in the Near East Regional Conference (NERC) in Rome this week. It has two associate members and one member organization, the EU.
Was there a single cataclysmic event, whether natural or man-made, that made the world finally wake up to the real and present danger posed by water scarcity? What was the light bulb moment?
“There wasn’t one,” the ADG said. “It has come gradually through systematic dialogue and hammering it home. The World Bank is in complete unision. So is the Arab Water Council, one of the biggest and most influential NGOs in the region. There is a good dynamic at work.”
Professing commitment in the clubby, convivial atmosphere of the NERC conference is one thing. But will all those ministers be saying the same thing when they go back home?
“No leader can NOT talk about. No UN agency can forget about it. Wherever you go today, water scarcity is central to the narrative of development.”
The FAO’s budget is currently $296 milion, which sounds surprisingly small by UN standards, especially considering the breadth of its remit, which includes everything from farming to family planning.
The ADG, an economist who studied at the Sorbonne and then the prestigious Ecole Nationale d’Administration — alma mater of the elite in France — has had to familiarize himself with the perils of red date beetle, which now threatens date palms from the Gulf to Morocco and a new pest, the fall armyworm, which arrived in east Africa from the Americas only last year but has already spread its devastation to Sudan and the borders with Egypt, Africa’s largest agricultural economy.
“Compared to agencies doing emergency relief, our funding is small. Agriculture is the least-funded area of development work. But our programs are very cost-effective. Most don’t cost much. You can make little things go a long way,” Ould Ahmed said.
“If we try to solve emergency problems in conflict zones, we won’t succeed. No agency working in those places is planning for a year ahead. We have to look three years ahead and more, even during the emergency. We have to keep going. We are here to create hope. We can’t despair.”