The Greatest Challenge Facing Agriculture: Water

Sustainable and efficient water management constitutes one of the greatest 21st century challenges that agricultural sector has to face. Population growth and increasing food demand have driven the agricultural sector to expand the use of water for irrigation, bringing the water crisis to the center of global debate. With water shortage being one of the most serious risks for the sustainable development of agriculture, the next years are crucial for the immediate implementation of policy scenarios that can conserve our water resources.

Sustain agriculture: water quantity and quality
One fundamental aspect of any strategy for sustainable water management should focus on “more crop per drop.” At a global level, about 70 percent of fresh water withdrawals are used for agricultural irrigation, therefore even small improvements in water productivity can have a significant effect on the local and global water resources. This is why the Food and Agriculture Organization considers “an increase in agricultural water productivity as the single most important avenue for managing water demand in agriculture” FAO (2012).

However, improving water productivity is not an easy endeavor. Particularly because not all producers and regions experience the water shortages that are seen from the global perspective. Those at the head of the water source have access to abundant clean water, and thus have no incentive to limit their consumption, or alter their current practices—to the detriment of producers downstream. Water policy should aim toward productivity-enhancing techniques that will allow the farmers to produce more output with the same or even less water, taking into consideration disparities that can occur because of each individual’s position from the water source.

The head versus tail conflict not only affects the quantity of water, but also its quality. Despite the fact that water is finite, it does not diminish over time. This reusable property of water can suffer from externalities related to salinity and nitrate pollution because of the extensive use of pesticides. Deterioration in the agricultural water quality can lead to decreasing water productivity, as upstream water use can have spillover effects on downstream farmers. Disputes over water quality among regions that share the same water source have recently been the source of international or intra-national conflicts over water rights.

How can we promote sustainable water management?
Public policy should aim at aligning the water managements strategies of producers with the overall goal of socially efficient water use. This can be achieved through economic instruments, such as water pricing or subsidies for improved irrigation technologies, and through regulatory approaches that are related to the management of water rights and permits on performance-based norms and standards. In addition, other instruments such as the promotion of sustainable farming practices through the provision of extension services, and stakeholders’ initiatives can be used to improve agricultural water management in the presence of water stress.

Based on the above, policy recommendations to incentivize efficient and sustainable water management are needed to help us deal with the greatest challenge that agriculture will face the five years: water scarcity. More specifically, an increase in the agricultural water productivity in combination with improvements related to the quality of water used in the agricultural sector should be two important pillars of this strategy.

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