By Bob Rabatsky,
AIARD President 2017-2018
Senior Vice President at Fintrac
Water availability is the most limiting factor to the production of food. The trends in safe water availability and use are improving, but still present a major challenge. According to the United Nations (UN), since 1990, the proportion of people using an improved water source increased from 76 to 90 percent. But nearly one half of the world’s population face water scarcity at least one month per year, and each year over 360 thousand children under the age of five die due to diarrhea, related to poor sanitation. It is estimated that 70% of all freshwater extracted from aquifers, rivers, and lakes is used in agriculture. This is concerning because by 2050 the UN estimates that two billion people, or 20% of the world’s population, will be living with the risk of reduced access to fresh water, and of course, this threat will be the most severe for the world’s poorest, many of them farmers.
Water and agriculture
Water availability and management are crucial to food production, which is increasingly at risk as more people, cities, and industries compete for fresh water. Not surprisingly, given their populations, India and China lead the world in, “water withdrawal,” or use for agriculture, using 688 and 388 billion cubic meters (BM3) respectively (FAO 2010). The U.S., in comparison, uses 175 BM3, but with a population approximately one third the size of China or India, uses an equivalent amount per capita as India and far more than China.
In the emerging economies, where many of us work, the vast majority of agriculture is conducted by 500 million smallholder farmers. They farm two hectares or less and provide all or part of the household income for 2.5 billion people, or one-third of the world’s population, as well as significant portions of food consumed in these countries. With the exception of India, which has made significant investments in irrigation infrastructure (35% of the land is irrigated), these farmers are dependent on rainfall for agriculture production. For example, only 4% of African land area is irrigated. As climate change impacts rainfall patterns, these farmers face uncertain food production on an annual basis. With little in the way of savings, credit access or insurance, a bad year means selling animals and other assets to pay for food and other necessities. The World Bank and others have documented that as a result of these uncertainties and the lack of an adequate safety net such as subsidies or crop insurance, these smallholder farmers are reluctant to invest in better seeds, fertilizers, pest management products, and other productivity-enhancing technologies, dooming them to food insecurity and poverty. Additionally, poor yields also contribute to local and regional food shortages and price hikes. Getting water availability and use rights is in everyone’s best interest.
Technologies and water use
Technologies that can address uncertain rainfall and other climate risks are increasingly becoming available and affordable in these markets. Through innovative donor-funded programs such as Feed the Future Partnering for Innovation, Powering Agriculture: An Energy Grand Challenge for Development, and Securing Water for Food, companies that have developed and are commercializing innovative technologies are provided incentives to focus their marketing and sales efforts to these challenging last mile markets. The technologies include low-cost mini drip irrigation kits, drought-tolerant seeds, biological products that improve soil organic content, treadle and solar pumps, weather tracking systems, and crop and animal insurance products. And of course, to ensure that a technology is properly deployed and will work as advertised, these programs can either work directly with their commercial partners or team with other development programs to provide adequate aftersales service and training support in both the technology use and in basic good agricultural practices (GAPs). Successful early deployment of technology is critical to scaling. Farmers who effectively use a technology and demonstrate increased productivity and earnings, as a result, are the best product marketing that a company can wish for.
Policies on water use
Government policies also have a significant influence on the availability and affordability of water for agriculture. Laws and traditions in many countries allow for unlimited access to surface and subsurface water which can result in soil and fertilizer/chemical runoff, declining aquifers, pollution, and soil damage from salt buildup. Interesting work is being done in assessing individual country performance on water use policies and practices. A “Water Use Scorecard,” similar to the ranking that the World Bank uses for doing business in ranking country-by-country policies, but instead looks at factors such as water use, potability, and climate risk, is being developed by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Enabling Environment for Food Security project. Look for the scorecard to be available soon. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs just released a report titled “From Scarcity to Security: Managing Water for a Nutritious Food Future” where it calls for policies and coordination between governments to address the growing need for fresh water, expected to increase 30-50% over current levels by 2050. And business and non-governmental organizations are ahead of governments in many cases in developing consortia of business and foundations to address water and climate. For example, the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium was recently formed by Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, Cargill, General Mills, Indigo Agriculture, Mars, McDonalds USA, Noble Research Institute, the Soil Health Institute and The Nature Conservancy to advance the development of a market-based system to promote land stewardship and build healthy soils, sequester carbon, and conserve water on the earth’s productive agricultural lands. Good policy is good business!
The challenges are immense, but certainly, the technologies and the know-how exists to use water more efficiently to both produce food and supply clean water that the world will need to support 10 billion people. The approaches and technologies need to be more evenly distributed, and success requires the public and private sectors to have to continue to collaborate and coordinate in this effort.
Some of the many fantastic resources for exploring water include:
University of Oxford Our World in Data
United Nations Water
World Bank Water
Feed the Future Partnering for Innovation
Powering Agriculture: An Energy Grand Challenge for Development
Securing Water for Food
Enabling Environment for Food Security
Chicago Council report From Scarcity to Security: Managing Water for a Nutritious Future
Ecosystem Services Market Consortium
The mission of the AIARD BLOG
The mission of the AIARD Blog is to highlight and share thoughts, ideas and work from people who have devoted their careers to global agricultural development and hunger alleviation.