Overcoming water challenges in agriculture to help solve global problems

Water shortages in ag must be addressed "immediately and boldly" - FAO

Improved water management will be essential to ensure global food security and nutrition as the agriculture sector continues to be the world’s largest user of water, according to a new report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

Water is the root of ecosystems where the food and nutritional security of present and future generations depends, the report said. Water of appropriate quality and quantity is essential for drinking, sanitary purposes and for food production, processing as well as preparation.

It is also important for energy, industry, transportation and other economic sectors. Overall, water supports economic growth and, therefore, economic access to food.

As the global population grows, available freshwater resources per person have declined by more than 20 percent over the past two decades.

Around the world, over three billion people inhabit agricultural areas with high levels of water shortages and scarcity.

In order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the State of Food and Agriculture 2020 (SOFA) report advises swift action.

“With this report, FAO is sending a strong message: water shortages and scarcity in agriculture must be addressed immediately and boldly if our pledge to achieve the SDGs is to be taken seriously,” FAO Director-General QU Dongyu made clear in the foreword of the report.

Paths for action can look like anything from investing in water-harvesting and conservation in rainfed areas to rehabilitating and modernizing sustainable irrigation systems in irrigated areas.

However, any path must be accompanied by the best agronomic practices, such as using drought-tolerant crop varieties and improving water management tools.

Achieving the internationally agreed SDG pledges “is still achievable”, the SOFA says, but only by ensuring more productive and sustainable use of freshwater and rainwater in agriculture, which accounts for more than 70 percent of global water withdrawals.

About 1.2 billion people - 44 percent of them in rural areas and the remainder in small urban centers in the countryside - live in places where severe water shortages and scarcity challenge agriculture.

The starting point for any effective management strategy must be water accounting and auditing.

“The inherent characteristics of water make it difficult to manage,” the SOFA report says.

“Water should be recognized as an economic good that has a value and a price,” it says, noting that treating water as a free commodity often creates 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 and governance support to ensure efficient, equitable and sustainable access for all is essential.

The report notes that in some cases, small-scale and farmer-led irrigation systems can be more efficient than large-scale projects. 

Though completely developed water markets involving the sale of water rights are relatively rare, when done correctly, they can induce efficient and equitable allocation of water all while promoting its conservation.