Published on The Water Blog

Agriculture holds the key to tackling water scarcity

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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.


What can agriculture do to address water scarcity in the context of climate change, while ensuring food and nutrition security?  What responses can the agriculture and food sectors offer to alleviate the impacts – and reduce the risks – of water scarcity? These questions were at the center of the Agriculture and Food Security Action Day during the COP22 summit in Marrakesh in November.
In a bid to tackle the impact of global water scarcity, FAO launched the Global Framework for Action to Cope with Water Scarcity in Agriculture in the Context of Climate Change. This initiative is based on the premise that a sustainable pathway to food security, in the context of water scarcity, lies in maximizing benefits that cut across multiple dimensions of the food–water–climate nexus. Appropriate responses to water scarcity will be found not only in the water domain, but also in all the agriculture and food sectors– crop production, livestock, fisheries, aquaculture, and forestry. Most water is withdrawn at the production stage, but water scarcity can also be addressed along food value chains and by consumers. Agriculture holds the key to coping with water scarcity as it is responsible for 70% of all freshwater withdrawals.
Farmers worldwide have been testing solutions to water scarcity, but they need to be supported  with appropriate policies, the right mix of public and private investments, and access to knowledge and resources for producing more and better with less water. Various adaptation measures that deal with climate variability and build on improved land and water management practices have the potential to create resilience to climate change and address water scarcity. The sustainable intensification of food production, with more efficient water management systems adapted to climate variability and local circumstances, can help increase water productivity and raise on-farm incomes. Countries in water-scarce regions will increasingly need to devise food security strategies that explicitly consider structural food supply deficits, and trade arrangements that will provide protection from food price volatility.
FAO’s Global Framework for Action will assist vulnerable countries to strengthen their capacities to adapt agriculture to the impacts of climate change and water scarcity, and implement their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) related to agriculture and water. The FAO Water Platform will support the implementation of the initiative.
Building on FAO’s previous initiatives on water scarcity, the Global Framework is a call for international partners to contribute to two working groups on knowledge and innovation, and policies and investments. The initiative will focus on a range of important thematic areas to address issues of water scarcity in agriculture, including:

  • Sustainable improvements of agricultural water productivity, cutting across all agricultural subsectors, from crop to livestock production, aquaculture and agroforestry, based on introduction of best practices in soil and water management, complementary afforestation, and sustainable grazing management.
  • Modernization and development of multipurpose and climate proofing irrigation infrastructure are considered also as important action areas to improve the efficiency of water use in agriculture while adapting to climate change impacts.
  • Integrated landscape approaches may play critical roles in regulating rainfall and other climate patterns and influencing water yields, sediment levels and water quality, and increasing water availability for agricultural use.
Other suggested areas of collaboration include:
  • The reuse of treated wastewater for food production while ensuring food safety and prevention and controlling of water pollution from agricultural activities.
  • More efficient use of water along food value chain has a good potential for water savings, reduction of water pollution and producing better quality food products.  As about one-third of all food produced for human consumption in the world is lost or wasted each year , actions to prevent, reduce, reuse and recycle food losses and waste are part of the solution to using water resources more effectively and reducing carbon and blue-water footprints. 
  • Diversification of production systems and income opportunities for smallholders may provide options for less water-intensive production and more climate-resilient livelihoods.
  • In the situation of growing water scarcity, in many countries food security will increasingly depend on food trade. A collective effort at an international level is therefore required to address the trade–food–water nexus and applications of the virtual water concept.

More information can be found at 

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*The views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Bank.*


Rimma Dankova

Senior Adviser FAO Investment Centre

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