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The Water We Eat: Why Modernizing Irrigation Beyond Infrastructure is Vital

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The Jevons paradox states that, in the long term, an increase in efficiency in resource use will generate an increase in resource consumption rather than a decrease. This has relevance to water, a resource whose scarcity levels are rising while demand for it is growing, making water-use efficiency a top policy priority.

This raises a few questions: If efforts to prevent over-consumption of scarce water resources through increases in use efficiency can lead to contradictory outcomes, how should we approach water management, and specifically irrigation, considering the need to ensure food and nutrition security for a growing, and increasingly thirsty, world? In other words, how can we optimize the water we eat?

Modernizing Irrigation in Central Asia: Concept and Approaches, a new publication by the World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, sets out to answer this question in the context of Central Asia, a region whose economies depend heavily on irrigated agriculture but where the current system is unsustainable and increasingly threatened by climate change.

An untenable status-quo

Around 80 percent of Central Asia’s limited arable land area is irrigated and, in many countries, agriculture contributes substantially to national export earnings.  The region’s irrigation and drainage (I&D) infrastructure, however, is largely dilapidated and in need of modernization. Most irrigation schemes, though still functional, operate far below their design potential due to years of inadequate funding, poor farm economics and management, and policy constraints. 

At the same time, the combination of limited water resources and high levels of water withdrawals for agriculture puts considerable stress on the available water supply in the region. Climate change is expected to further exacerbate regional water scarcity and contribute to the ongoing problems of desertification, land degradation, and drought across the region.

Why focusing exclusively on more-for-less isn’t always best

Conventional responses to water scarcity have tended to focus on producing more output for the same or less input – “more crop per drop”. These interventions include solutions to increase water use efficiency based on, for instance, innovations in irrigation technologies, agronomic and water management practices, better infrastructure, as well as economic instruments.

In practice, interventions aimed at increasing water use efficiency in agricultural production can have multiple objectives other than reducing water scarcity risks —for example, to raise farm-level incomes, contribute to economic growth, or reduce environmental impacts.  While some of these goals will be complementary, others might be incompatible and will require difficult tradeoffs. For example, raising farmer incomes might be in conflict and have significant tradeoffs with preserving sustainable water consumption limits at the basin or aquifer scales.

The evidence bears this out. A review of over 240 interventions to improve water use in agriculture, showed that “higher irrigation efficiency typically contributes to the intensification of water scarcity through increased water consumption in the agricultural process.” This phenomenon has been dubbed the irrigation efficiency paradox: water saved from efficiency measures at a local scale, such as field or irrigation system, does not lead to reduced consumption at a larger scale, such as a catchment or basin. In practice, increasing irrigation efficiency seldom delivers the presumed common benefits of increased water availability overall.

To account for this, interventions aimed at increasing irrigation efficiency must be accompanied by effective regulatory instruments, robust water accounting with continuous monitoring of related system parameters and enforcement of regulations to manage water use. And herein lies the key. Understanding the processes, actors, drivers, and barriers at different scales of agricultural water management and their interdependencies is critically important.

Because interventions are likely to impact multiple scales and even several sectors, whether intentionally or otherwise, policy, practical solutions, and implementation need to be based on a coherent policy framework. This is not an easy task because of overlapping decision scales, competing policy objectives, and often poorly understood synergies and tradeoffs. Therefore, a high degree of integrated thinking and coordination across various sectors (and sometimes institutions!) and scales is required. These are both technical and political challenges.

Modernizing rather than merely rehabilitating

Such is the challenge in Central Asia: to ensure a holistic approach to addressing the increasing scarcity of, and, growing demand for water. Changing socio-economic and climatic conditions necessitate a more reliable, productive, and sustainable approach to irrigation . But too-narrow a focus on increasing the efficiency of irrigation without taking into account the behavioral responses of irrigators to such interventions, or the latter’s impact at multiple scales, risks falling prey to the paradox.

Modernizing irrigation offers a way forward.  As opposed to the mere rehabilitation of infrastructure, the concept of modernization includes both the technical and managerial upgrading of irrigation schemes, combined with institutional reforms, to improve resource utilization - including water, land, environment, and labor - and water delivery service to farmers. In addition to improvements in physical infrastructure, modernization incorporates changes in the way I&D systems are managed, operated, and maintained, alongside the necessary policy and institutional reforms.

About the report

The publication offers practical guidance on developing and implementing modernization solutions in Central Asia’s I&D sector. It introduces a framework that allows for more nuanced approaches and interventions that consider the scale and performance of target schemes.

Ultimately, modernizing the water we eat means ensuring that all parts of the irrigated agriculture value chain are working together. To achieve this, Central Asia’s policy makers will have to make difficult choices about how to manage increasing resource deficits and set priorities. This report offers a roadmap for doing so.


Download the publication:

English: Modernizing irrigation in Central Asia

Russian Модернизация систем ирригации в Центральной Азии


Winston Yu

Practice Manager, Water, Europe and Central Asia

Wafaa ElKhoury

Service Chief for Near East and North Africa and Europe and Central Asia Service, FAO Investment Centre, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

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