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Reduced Water Flow Threatens Agriculture and Food Security Globally

QUOTE: "Mountains are a barometer of global climate change," says
Douglas McGuire, head of the International Year of Mountains
coordination unit at FAO. "... many climatologists believe they are
an early indication of what may come to pass around the world."


ROME, 14 October 2002 -- The supply of freshwater, recognized on this
World Food Day as the source of food security, is threatened by the
increasing degradation of mountain ecosystems.

Mountains are often called nature's water towers. They intercept air
circulating around the globe and force it upwards where it condenses
into clouds, which provide rain and snow. All the major rivers in the
world - from the Rio Grande to the Nile - have their headwaters in

As a consequence, one of every two people drinks water that
originates in mountains. One billion Chinese, Indians and
Bangladeshis, 250 million people in Africa, and the entire population
of California, United States, are among the 3 billion people who rely
on the continuous flow of mountain water. Each day, water from
mountains turns hydro-electric turbines, aids industrial processes,
irrigates farmers' fields and quenches thirst.

Yet, despite all who depend on it, the future of mountain water has
never been more uncertain. The magnitude of this threat is one of the
reasons the United Nations declared 2002 the International Year of

Glaciers shrinking at alarming rate

Some of the freshwater obtained from mountains is stored in glaciers.
Now, because of the effects of global warming, many mountain glaciers
are melting at unprecedented rates. Runoff from the Quelcaya Ice Cap,
for example, has been the traditional water source for residents of
Lima, Peru. Over the past decade, melting of the ice cap has
increased from 3 to 30 metres a year, putting freshwater at risk for
10 million people. In many other parts of the world, glaciers have
also been shrinking. In the European Alps and the Caucasus Mountains,
for example, glaciers have shrunk to half their size, while in Africa
an ice cap on Mount Kenya has shrunk by 40 percent since 1963. If
current trends continue, by the end of this century many of the
world's mountain glaciers, including all those in Glacier National
Park in the United States, will have vanished entirely.

Threats from mining, forestry

"Mountains are a barometer of global climate change," says Douglas
McGuire, head of the International Year of Mountains coordination
unit at FAO. "These fragile ecosystems are highly sensitive to
changes in temperature and because they are found on every continent,
many climatologists believe they are an early indication of what may
come to pass around the world."

Global climate change is just one of many threats to mountain water.
Other human activities, such as exploitative mining and unsustainable
forestry and agriculture practices, are also taking a toll.

For many countries, as water flow slows, growing sufficient
quantities of food will become increasingly difficult. In India, for
example, an estimated 500 million people already plagued by water
shortages depend on tributaries of the glacier-fed Indus and Ganges
Rivers. Scientists believe that as Himalaya ice caps melt these
rivers will swell -- before falling to dangerously low levels and
drastically reducing local farmers' capacity to grow food.

"Mountain people are often the first to feel the effects of
environmental degradation," says McGuire. "It is a sobering fact that
many of the world's 800 million chronically undernourished people
live in mountains."

Fighting over water

Water is a shared resource. What begins in mountain watersheds
trickles down into streams and rivers, meanders across borders, flows
into lakes, fills aquifers and, eventually, empties into oceans.
Worldwide, 214 river basins - host to 40 percent of the world's
population - are shared by two or more countries. Too often, where
there is need for cooperation there is potential for conflict. In
1995, the distribution of water from mountains was the cause of 14
international disputes.

Many water-use disagreements arise locally between highlands and
lowlands or regions within a country. Mount Kenya, for example,is the
source of water for more than 2 million people in Africa. But in
recent years, farmers living in the mountain's highlands have been
using increasing amounts of water to irrigate crops. As a
consequence, downstream water flow has been severely reduced,
fuelling hostility from those whose survival depends on lowland
pastures, cattle ranching and tourism in wildlife parks.

As populations increase and demand for clean water grows, the
potential for conflict will only get worse.

United response is needed

"The challenges facing the world's mountain ranges and mountain
communities are as big as mountains themselves," FAO Director-General
Jacques Diouf said at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in
Johannesburg, in September. "The way forward, I believe, is to break
the challenges down into smaller pieces, smaller issues, and for each
of us to contribute what we have and what we do best. This requires
collaboration of all of us -- governments, UN agencies, major groups
and the private sector."

With those sentiments in mind, a number of countries, United Nations
agencies and international organizations joined FAO in launching the
International Partnership for Sustainable Development in Mountain
Regions. Although the partnership is still taking shape, it is
conceived as an evolving alliance between groups and individuals
around the world with the flexibility to address the complexity,
diversity and magnitude of mountain issues.

© FAO, 2002