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Poor countries urgently need investment to improve water usage in agriculture and ecosystems to reduce hunger, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
Bad water management and lack of infrastructure are the main culprits resulting in low food productivity in many developing countries, FAO's deputy director-general David Harcharik told an international water conference in the Netherlands Monday.
"Water plays a key role in achieving the world's Millennium targets of halving the number of hungry people by 2015 and reversing the loss of natural resources," Harcharik said.
"But in far too many countries progress has not been made and the number of hungry is actually increasing," he said, citing FAO's latest estimates, according to which 852 million people suffer from chronic hunger and under-nourishment.
FAO said that natural ecosystems and agriculture were the biggest consumers of the earth's fresh water but it remained an underused commodity even in countries with ample water resources, Africa and Latin America in particular.
In Latin America, which owns up to 30 percent of the world's fresh water, only 12 percent of arable land is irrigated, Harcharik said.
Africa uses only 5 percent of its water resources and only 7 percent of the continent's arable land is irrigated.
"The consequences are tragic for this continent ... Investment in rain-fed and irrigated agriculture are urgently needed," he said.
Small-scale water collecting, irrigating and drainage facilities built in African villages could sharply increase farming production at a reasonable cost, he said, urging governments to play the lead role in generating investment.
However, the world's increasing food needs should not be met at the expense of damaging the environment and biodiversity, FAO and conference participants warned.
They called on countries to find a balance between the often conflicting water demands for producing food and preserving ecosystems, which play a crucial role in regulating water quality and quantity.
Finding this balance is particularly important in developing countries, where agriculture and environment are the main drivers of economic growth and the keys to alleviating poverty, the conference attendees were told.