Agriculture is both a victim and a cause of water scarcity. Water of appropriate quality and quantity is essential for the production of crops, livestock, and fisheries, as well as for the processing and preparation of these foods and products. Water is the lifeblood of ecosystems, including forests, lakes, and wetlands, on which the food and nutritional security of present and future generations depends. At the same time, agriculture is the largest water user globally, and a major source of water pollution. Unsustainable agricultural water use practices threatens the sustainability of livelihoods dependent on water and agriculture.
Additionally, climate change will have significant impacts on agriculture by increasing water demand, limiting crop productivity, and reducing water availability in areas where irrigation is most needed or has a comparative advantage. A growing number of regions will face increasing water scarcity. Climate change will bring greater variation in weather events, more frequent weather extremes, and new challenges requiring the sector to take mitigation and adaptation actions.
A challenging area in agricultural water management is the assessment of policy and investment options in irrigated agriculture for conserving water and adapting to increasing water scarcity, in particular when the linkages to groundwater resources and their management are to be considered and incorporated.
However, this is an increasingly important area of research for a number of reasons. First, and is a major contributing factor to the water scarcity situation in many countries. Second, with almost a quarter of freshwater withdrawals for irrigated agriculture being made up of groundwater supplies—corresponding to 70% of total groundwater withdrawals—, And, third, with groundwater discharge contributing to the base flow of streams and surface water contributing to groundwater recharge, and these interactions are intensified by human action, in particular water withdrawals for irrigated agriculture. Even in cases where irrigated agriculture depends mostly on surface water, groundwater impacts therefore need to be accounted for when assessing water conservation efforts (and vice versa).
Fresh water touches every part of daily life—from drinking water and sanitation, to agriculture and energy production. Unfortunately, for nearly half of the world’s population, water scarcity is a growing issue with devastating impacts to our communities, economies and nature. In the past, countries have primarily turned to more supply-side infrastructure, including reservoirs and canals, as solutions to increasing water demands. But we can no longer build our way out of scarcity. We must find ways to do more with less, and impact investment can provide a catalyst for revolutionary changes in water management.
Water markets can be a powerful mechanism for alleviating water scarcity, restoring ecosystems and driving sustainable water management. Water markets are based upon water rights which can be bought and sold, enabling water to be transferred from one user to another. A well-managed water market provides economic flexibility, encourages water saving measures and brings a variety of stakeholders to the table to find balance between the water needs of people and nature.
The Nature Conservancy’s new report, “Water Share: Using water markets and impact investment to drive sustainability,” explores the potential for water markets and impact investment to serve as part of the solution to global water scarcity. Water markets, when paired with creative investment solutions including The Nature Conservancy’s concept of Water Sharing Investment Partnerships, can help provide a more water-secure future for cities, agriculture, industries and nature.
The cost of solar technology has come down, way down, making it is a viable way to expand access to energy for hundreds of millions of people living in energy poverty. For farmers in developing countries, the growing availability of solar water pumps offers a viable alternative to system dependent on fossil fuel or grid electricity. While relatively limited, experience in several countries shows how solar irrigation pumps can make farmers more resilient against the erratic shifts in rainfall patterns caused by climate change or the unreliable supply and high costs of fossil fuels needed to operate water pumps. Experience also suggests a number of creative ways that potential water resource trade-offs can be addressed.
Groundwater stored in the earth’s crust underpins all our lives – the ultimate source of freshwater for billions has become victim of over-extraction and the ultimate sink for pollutants.
For too long, not enough has been done to regulate the use of this precious, on-demand resource and manage disposal of waste. If rates of groundwater depletion have tripled in the past 3 decades, then the rate at which pollutants have accumulated in shallow aquifers can only have equaled or exceeded that rate.
The lack of care given to groundwater is placing a huge tax on the poor who have no access to clean piped water supply and depend on groundwater for their health and livelihoods. Self-supply, through the use of wells, from polluted aquifers in urban and rural areas is widespread, but un-reported. The impacts are all too apparent in the densely populated urban slums and rural communities that often live just centimeters above polluted soil and rock. Out-migration of poor farmers who are no longer able to access deepening groundwater tables has been a feature in arid and semi-arid regions, but intensive agriculture is also leaving behind a legacy of nitrates and pesticides which imprint aquifers for decades.
Each year on March 22 we mark World Water Day. It is an opportunity to keep the urgent water issues – from lack of sanitation to transboundary water to climate change -- top of my mind for practitioners, decision makers and the global public. In the coming days we will post here updates and stories from the field, as well as links to some of our partners’ content. But, more importantly, this is an opportunity to hear from you, too.
Also available in: 中文
China’s most arid regions are facing an increasingly serious water crisis, and local water policies often aggravate the problem. In such climates, growth in the agricultural sector has come with high environmental costs.
With the help of new technologies that measure real water consumption in agriculture, governments are designing innovative water rights systems that actually save water. Based on results from two successful pilots, the World Bank Group is partnering with China to tap into science to transform water management in agriculture at the national level.
Peak oil has generated headlines in recent years, but the real threat to our future is peak water. There are substitutes for oil, but not for water.
For those of us who were teenagers in the 1980s, it is difficult not to remember the famous Live record released in 1983 by the reggae band UB40. Almost 30 years later I am still listening to their sound. As we mark World Food Day on October 16, I am reminded of one of the songs in that album, Food for Thought. In fact, I still remember some of the lyrics: "Eat and drink rejoicing, joy is here to stay." Drink, eat, and rejoice – a reminder of the link between water, food, happiness, well-being, and prosperity.