The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations has launched the Global Dialogue on Water Tenure, which commenced at the UN 2023 Water Conference in March this year. According to Sasha Koo-Oshima, Deputy Director of the FAO Land and Water Division, the dialogue will address the increasingly pressing issue of water allocation under scenarios of diminishing freshwater resources due to climate change and evolving needs for water. A global dialogue on water tenure, FAO argues, could lead to an agreement on voluntary guidelines which define the principles for responsible governance of water tenure.
A FAO concept paper from 2022 highlighted the fact that while agriculture is by far the dominant user of water, agricultural water use faces increasing competition from industry, cities and the environment. As FAO argues, on the way from source to sea, water is used many times by different people and for different purposes. Water is needed for domestic water supply and sanitation, for businesses and for industry. In most countries the largest water user is agriculture to produce food and sustain farmers’ livelihoods. Water is also needed by natural vegetation, wildlife and fish. This complexity and diversity of uses has led to the development of rules in society for the extraction of water from nature and the conditions for its return to the environment. It is the collection of rights, rules, duties and practices related to water that constitute water tenure. It is a relationship, defined by customs or by law, defined by individuals and groups, with respect to water resources. To achieve equity and environmental sustainability in water use, water tenure arrangements are an important tool. Especially in cases where multiple water tenure systems exist and/or where there water tenure arrangements are incoherent, it is important to review these arrangements to ensure consistency.
For FAO, the goal of achieving global food security is central to its mandate. Yet, to feed a projected global population of 10 billion in 2050, FAO’s paper argues, agricultural production will need to increase by almost 50 percent, and irrigation will play a large role in this. Resolving issues around rights of access to and use of water require on the one hand security of tenure for the users, but also flexibility in the allocation system to respond to changes in water availability and water demand. The hope is that a global dialogue on water tenure, led by FAO, can lead to an agreement on voluntary guidelines defining principles for responsible governance of water tenure. In a similar process for land tenure, voluntary guidelines on land, fisheries and forest tenure were developed and endorsed by the committee on world food security in 2012.