Growing against the odds: Three reasons why irrigated agriculture is critical in a changing climate

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Picture this: It's a hot, scorching day. The earth beneath your feet is parched, and your once-green fields have turned into a mosaic of cracked mud. As a farmer, you’re weary and anxious, waiting for the rain to arrive as you witness your crop wither away under the relentless sun. This visualization is the harsh reality of a changing climate – as well as its very real impacts, from livelihoods and health to water and food. 

This picture might look different with irrigated agriculture. While it may not always make headlines, irrigation is a lifeline for farmers and entire agri-food systems worldwide. Imagine a world without irrigation – our food supply would be unpredictable at best, millions more would face food insecurity, and food prices would be sky-high, further straining the lives of billions of people living in poverty around the world. 

Why is irrigation so important? Currently, 222 million people across 53 countries grapple with acute food insecurity. With erratic rainfall patterns and prolonged droughts becoming the new norm, irrigation provides a reliable source of water when other sources fall short. 

1. Irrigation Can Increase Agricultural Productivity and Reduce Poverty 

Irrigated agriculture is a powerful climate adaptation strategy. It's like an insurance policy for farmers and food systems, acting as a shield against unpredictable weather patterns and drought, ensuring a steady food supply. It enables farmers to cultivate more diverse crops and extend growing seasons. In a world facing food insecurity, this is nothing short of a game-changer.  

A Global Water Security and Sanitation Partnership-supported publication, The Impacts of Irrigation: A Review of Published Evidence, delves into the empirical evidence related to the impacts of irrigation. The report reviews over 500 articles and highlights diverse benefits of irrigation, such as poverty reduction, increased agricultural output, and improved productivity of complementary inputs. It also acknowledges some of the negative impacts of irrigation and offers recommendations to maximize irrigation's benefits in a changing climate and world. 

2. Modernizing Irrigation Systems Can Support Food Security 

As we look ahead to the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference (commonly referred to as COP28), we stand at a critical juncture where our actions today will determine the future wellbeing of people and the planet. Irrigation must play a pivotal role in producing more food with less water while bolstering our resilience against climate-related challenges. In fact, during one COP27 event, "Innovating, Planning, and Modernizing Irrigation and Water Resources Management for Climate Mitigation and Adaptation," experts emphasized that modernizing irrigation systems is key to feeding a projected 10 billion people by 2050. 

Modernization involves technical and managerial upgrades, institutional reforms, and government intervention. When executed thoughtfully, it not only enhances agricultural resilience to climate change but also has the potential to reduce net carbon emissions from farming activities. By allowing flexible, on-demand irrigation and involving the private sector, modernization holds the promise of a sustainable agri-food future. 

3. Irrigated Agriculture Can Grow Food Efficiently 

Our food systems are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of water scarcity, pollution, floods, and the ever-evolving physical and geopolitical landscape. While water's potential to catalyze transformative changes in our food systems has been acknowledged, it has not yet assumed a central role in their design. 

During the UN 2023 Water Conference, the World Bank, in collaboration with the Global Water Security and Sanitation Partnership and the 2030 Water Resources Group, participated in a side event called "Make Water Pivotal in Food Systems." This event shed light on the water-related challenges that food systems face and emphasized the pivotal role of water as a catalyst for the transformation of these systems. The event encouraged stakeholders within the food system, including farmers, traders, consumers, and policymakers, to reconsider their approach to water usage and allocation, fostering a shift towards more sustainable and resilient practices. Throughout this event, experts also highlighted that transformative changes are necessary to ensure future water sustainability within planetary boundaries. 

Climate change disrupts the delicate balance of water security. Increased temperatures lead to evaporation, depletion of water sources, and communities vulnerable to water scarcity. Irrigated agriculture plays a dual role here. On the one hand, irrigation is known to consume a significant portion of the world’s freshwater resources. However, it also has the potential to foster efficient water management practices. Modern irrigation technologies, such as drip, sprinkler, and precision irrigation, use water more efficiently, reducing waste and conserving this precious resource.  

Charting the Course to COP28 and Beyond

Time is of the essence as we strive to feed 10 billion people by 2050. Achieving this goal demands substantial reforms, political will, and innovative approaches. Policymakers must prioritize investments in small-scale irrigation systems accessible to smallholder farmers, promoting water-use efficiency while preserving ecosystem services. We stand at a critical juncture where our actions today will determine the future of food security, water resources, and our planet's well-being.

What do you think? How can we further support and innovate irrigated agriculture in the context of climate change? Share your thoughts and join the conversation on this critical issue. Together, we can cultivate change and nourish a hungry world. 

Related Links:

Farmer-led irrigation: the what, why, and how-to guide

The Irrigation Operator of the Future: A Toolkit

A quiet revolution in irrigation offers a key to recovery

Towards a new generation of irrigation investments

In Niger, drip-irrigation helps farmers battle climate induced water woes

Water in Agriculture at the World Bank

Authors

Regassa Ensermu Namara

Senior Water Economist, World Bank Water Global Practice

Lauren Nicole Core

Special Projects, Water Global Practice, The World Bank

Amal Talbi

Global Lead for Water in Agriculture, World Bank

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