How to overcome water challenges in agriculture
FAO’s The State of Food & Agriculture (SOFA) 2020 takes a new look at water shortages & scarcity in the world
26 November 2020, Rome – More than three billion people live in agricultural areas with high to very high levels of water shortages & scarcity, & almost half of them face severe constraints. Furthermore, available freshwater resources per person have declined by more than 20 percent over the past two decades globally, underscoring the importance of producing more with less, especially in the agriculture sector, the world’s largest user of water.
Improved water management, supported by effective governance & strong institutions – including secure water tenure & rights, underpinned by sound water accounting & auditing – will be essential to ensure global food security & nutrition, & contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), according to The State of Food & Agriculture (SOFA) 2020 – a flagship report published today by the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
“With this report, FAO is sending a strong message: water shortages & scarcity in agriculture must be addressed immediately & boldly if our pledge to achieve the SDGs is to be taken seriously,” FAO Director-General QU Dongyu emphasized in the foreword of the report.
Paths for action range from investing in water-harvesting & conservation in rainfed areas to rehabilitating & modernizing sustainable irrigation systems in irrigated areas. These must be combined with best agronomic practices, such as adopting drought-tolerant crop varieties, & improved water management tools – including effective water pricing & allocation tools, such as water rights & quotas – to ensure equitable & sustainable access. Water accounting & auditing must be, however, the starting point for any effective management strategy.
Achieving the internationally agreed SDG pledges, including the Zero Hunger target (SDG 2), “is still achievable,” the SOFA emphasizes – but only by ensuring more productive & sustainable use of freshwater & rainwater in agriculture, which accounts for more than 70 percent of global water withdrawals.
FAO’s SOFA report in 1993 also focused on water issues, & today it is striking how the findings presented then remain valid & relevant today. While the previous report focused on irrigation, the new edition broadens its scope to cover water-related challenges in rainfed agriculture, which represents more than 80 percent of land under cultivation & 60 percent of global crop production.
Mapping the moisture
FAO is the custodian of SDG Indicator 6.4.2, which measures the pressure of human activities on natural freshwater resources, & SOFA offers the first spatially disaggregated representation of how things stand today – which, when meshed with historical drought frequency data, allows for a more holistic assessment of water constraints in food production.
About 1.2 billion people – 44 percent of them in rural areas & the remainder in small urban centers in the countryside – live in places where severe water shortages & scarcity challenge agriculture. Around 40 percent of them live in Eastern & South-eastern Asia, & a slightly higher share in Southern Asia. Central Asia & Northern Africa & Western Asia are also severely affected – about one of every five people live in agricultural areas with very high water shortages & scarcity, compared to less than 4 percent in Europe, Latin America & the Caribbean, Northern America & Oceania.
About 5 percent of people living in sub-Saharan Africa live in similar conditions, meaning that about 50 million people live in areas where severe drought has catastrophic impacts on cropland & pastureland once every three years.
About 11 percent of the world’s rainfed cropland, or 128 million hectares, face frequent drought, as does about 14 percent of pastureland, or 656 million hectares. Meanwhile, more than 60 percent (or 171 million hectares) of irrigated cropland is highly water stressed. 11 countries, all in Northern Africa & Asia, face both challenges, making it urgent & necessary to adopt sound water accounting, clear allocation, modern technologies & to shift to less thirsty crops.
Mathematics of water
“The inherent characteristics of water make it difficult to manage,” the SOFA report notes.
“Water should be recognized as an economic good that has a value & a price,” it says, noting that customary practices leading it to be treated as a free commodity often create market failures. A price that reflects the true value of water, by contrast, sends a clear signal to users to use water wisely. At the same time, policy & governance support to ensure efficient, equitable & sustainable access for all is essential.
“Water management plans need to be problem-focused & dynamic,” the report recommends. SOFA notes that the rural poor can benefit substantially from irrigation & endorses its cautious expansion. Between 2010 & 2050, harvested irrigated areas are projected to grow in most regions of the world & to more than double in sub-Saharan Africa, potentially benefiting hundreds of millions of rural people.
The report notes that, in some cases, small-scale & farmer-led irrigation systems can be more efficient than large-scale projects. That’s a promising path for sub-Saharan Africa, where surface & underground water resources are comparatively undeveloped & only 3 percent of cropland is equipped for irrigation – & where expanding small-scale irrigation can be profitable & benefit millions of rural people. However, many factors impede adoption, including lack of secure water tenure & access to finance & credit. In Asia, declining large-scale state-funded surface irrigation have led to farmers tapping directly into groundwater, placing excessive pressure on the resource. Addressing these issues will require investing in modernizing old irrigation schemes, as well as effective policies.
Full-fledged water markets involving the sale of water rights are relatively rare. However, when water accounting & auditing is well performed, water tenure & rights are well established, & the active participation of beneficiaries & managing institutions is promoted, regulated water markets can induce efficient & equitable allocation of water, while promoting its conservation.
Did you know?
-The average amount of freshwater per person in 2017 was about 43 000 m3 in Oceania, while barely reaching 1 000 m3 in Northern Africa & Western Asia.
-Total water withdrawals per capita are highest in Central Asia, reaching almost 2 000 m3 per person in 2017, compared to less than 130 m3 in sub-Saharan Africa.
-In least developed countries, 74 percent of rural people do not have access to safe drinking water.
-91 countries have national plans for rural drinking water, but only nine have allocated sufficient funding to implement them.
-Around 41 percent of current global irrigation occurs at the expense of environmental flow requirements, which are essential to sustain ecosystems that provide life-supporting functions.
-Biofuels require 70 to 400 times more water than do the fossil fuels they replace.
-Major forests in areas such as the Amazon, Congo & Yangtze river basins are important sources of water vapour for areas downwind & are, therefore, crucial to rainfed agriculture.