Published on The Water Blog

Unleashing the Climate Change Mitigation Potential of Rice Cultivation

This page in:
Photo: Tilling rice paddies with water buffaloes in Thar Phyan, Bogale Township. Thar Phyan, Bogale Township, Myanmar. Markus Kostner / World Bank. Photo: Tilling rice paddies with water buffaloes in Thar Phyan, Bogale Township. Thar Phyan, Bogale Township, Myanmar. Markus Kostner / World Bank.

Rice production presents often overlooked opportunities for mitigating Green House Gas (GHG) emissions, while also attaining increased production, savings in water consumption, and health benefits. Improved technologies for rice production are well known, but their implementation will require bold action. This will include simultaneously mobilizing many millions of farmers, along with private sector and government actors, through restructuring the relevant policy, financing instruments, available technology, and learning methods – all as part of an overarching and ambitious transformation agenda.

Rice is the nutritious staple crop for more than half of the world’s population, and a source of income for over 200 million smallholder farmers. However, of all the field crops, rice production has the largest GHG footprint in both absolute and relative terms. Methane is the key issue here: around 12% of global emissions stem from rice fields. 

The nature of this problem is linked to anaerobic conditions resulting from submerged paddy fields; fortunately, technical solutions have been known for a while. Besides increasing nutrient efficiency and improving the management of straw and residue, the most transformative method is interrupting flooded conditions during production, known as Alternate Wetting and Drying - AWD. AWD can reduce water use by up to 30% and methane emissions by 48%

However, scaling the implementation has proven to be challenging.  Most fundamentally, the scale-up will only be technically achievable when attributes such as well-leveled fields, the availability of efficient drainage, and high-performance delivery of irrigation services are rolled out simultaneously. Farmers lack incentives to change their production processes as having a standing layer of water over the paddy fields offers them peace of mind. Furthermore, on the policy level, farmers are typically not rewarded for reducing their emissions (or their water use), nor are they faced with penalties for increasing them. Finally, even in countries where AWD is part of formal policy, coordination is challenging in terms of simultaneously addressing collective action and behavioral change, incentives and financing mechanisms.

With COP 26 drawing attention to climate-smart rice production, we see a renewed interest in and opportunity for aligning the stars. The bottom line is that all of the defined challenges should be tackled simultaneously in order to achieve results. To that end, we propose four mutually reinforcing pillars. 

First of all, change should be feasible at the supply level. This will require shifting the focus toward accountability for reliable, equitable, and flexible irrigation service delivery performance at all levels. This needs to be supported with the re-engineering of schemes and getting data directly into the hands of farmers with disruptive technology.

Secondly, change can be incentivized at the farm level. This will require rationalizing irrigation service subsidies and moving them toward building both accountability for the delivery of services, and the valuing of natural resources. It is also crucial to de-risk innovation--for example, by offering the assurance of premium irrigation services or water supply to those who employ AWD and/or other water conservation methods, as well as through mobilizing climate finance. In addition, awareness and behavioral change campaigns will have to accompany any incentive schemes. 

Third, change has to be multisectoral at the knowledge and policy level. Policy harmonization and building the knowledge base are essential for effective and affordable measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV), which in turn is the basis for unlocking financing and accountability for results. This can help build outcome-oriented alliances for change and help overcome the slowest-mover conundrum. 

Finally, change can be accelerated at the market level. In order to de-risk farmers who opt for low-carbon intensive farming technologies, and monetize the value created, they should gain access to the market with their climate-smart rice and enhance their incomes by strengthening a low-carbon value chain. The private sector and financiers can be facilitated through accelerator models and platforms designed to direct their sourcing and contracting strategies for climate impact. 

In short, by comprehensively enabling, incentivizing, integrating, and accelerating, meaningful systems change can be achieved; and this is the starting point of policy objectives and dialogue in many South and South East Asian countries. To steer programs toward tangible changes in a climate-smart rice agenda, the Water in Agriculture Global Solutions Group has launched the “Paddies for the Planet and Producers” (P4P&P)  initiative across the World Bank’s Water, Agriculture and Food, Environment, and Climate Change Global Practices (GPs), including the 2030 Water Resources Group (2030 WRG).

Within the P4P&P initiative, we are facilitating collaborative thinking and discussions about water and fertilizer management, climate finance, and other system-wide approach to scale up solutions. Our aim is to build the evidence base; support the translation of research into implementation; help catalyze public and private partnerships; and mobilize technical advisories to help develop results-based financing for this crucially important, and transformative, agenda. 


Pieter Waalewijn

Senior Water Resources Management and Irrigation Specialist, World Bank

Ruyi Li

Water Global Practice Consultant

Svetlana Valieva

Coordinator for Water in Agriculture Global Solutions Group, World Bank Water Global Practice

Mekbib Haile

Agriculture Economist

Si Gou

Water Resources Management Specialist

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000