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Water constraints in irrigated and rainfed agriculture threaten food security

  • Water constraints in irrigated and rainfed agriculture threaten food security

Data from a new FAO report shows more than 3 billion people live in agricultural areas with high to very high levels of water shortages (affecting rainfed agriculture) or scarcity (affecting irrigated agriculture), and globally the annual amount of available freshwater per person has declined by more than 20 percent in the last two decades, informs The Guardian.

The FAO has recently released the 2020 issue of the State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA 2020). One of the FAO’s annual flagship publications, each year it focuses on a topic of major relevance for agriculture development and food security, and this year it is “Overcoming water challenges in agriculture”, calling for urgent action to make water use in agriculture more sustainable and equitable.

Water scarcity (the imbalance between supply and demand of freshwater) and water quality issues are increasingly threatening food security through their impacts on food systems. Meanwhile, severe droughts, exacerbated by climate change, lead to increasingly serious water shortages (low levels of water supply) in rainfed agriculture, reduce yields and pose a risk to livelihoods.

The report highlights some key drivers of water scarcity. On one hand, population growth results in an increased demand for water. On the other, socio-economic development – rising incomes and urbanisation – also leads to increased water demand from industry, energy and services, and changes to more land- and water-intensive diets, which include more meat and dairy products. The FAO warns that the challenges of water shortages and scarcity must be addressed together with the impacts of climate change, which are expected to increase the risk of extreme weather events, and climate variability.

The FAO found that while small-scale and farmer-led irrigation systems are often more efficient than large-scale ones, small farmers face difficulties such as insecure water tenure and access to finance. Another report by the International Land Coalition has found that land inequality is growing, affecting some 2.5 billion people involved in smallholder agriculture. While the largest 1% of farms operate more than 70% of the world’s farmland and are integrated into the corporate food system, over 80% of farms are less than two hectares, operate about 12% of the farmland, and are generally excluded from global food chains.

Food production must increase to feed the world’s growing population, but it also needs to change. In irrigated cropland, increasing water productivity is a must, with better governance to ensure equitable access to water. Regarding rainfed agriculture, which currently accounts for some 80% of total cropland and 60% of global crop production, unlocking its potential needs improvements in water management, encouraging water harvesting and conservation strategies that allow infiltration into the root-zone, increase plant uptake capacity, and reduce drainage losses.

The UN monitors progress towards SDG Target 6.4: water use and scarcity. Specifically, the FAO is the custodian of indicator 6.4.2 on water stress, that is, freshwater withdrawal as a proportion of available resources. The estimated levels of water stress, together with water shortages in rainfed agriculture, suggest that ensuring sustainable management of water for all continues to be a challenge. As water is closely linked to other SDGs, managing scarce water resources efficiently is critical to fully achieve sustainable development. Agriculture is the largest water user, with more than 70% of global water withdrawals, thus ensuring the productive and sustainable use of freshwater and rainwater in agriculture is paramount.

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