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The State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA) 2020. Overcoming water challenges in agriculture

Intensifying water constraints threaten food security and nutrition. Thus, urgent action is needed to make water use in agriculture more sustainable and equitable. Irrigated agriculture remains by far the largest user of freshwater, but scarcity of freshwater is a growing problem owing to increasing demand and competition for freshwater resources. At the same time, rainfed agriculture is facing increasing precipitation variability driven by climate change. These trends will exacerbate disputes among water users and inequality in access to water, especially for small-scale farmers, the rural poor and other vulnerable populations.

The State of Food and Agriculture 2020 presents new estimates on the pervasiveness of water scarcity in irrigated agriculture and of water shortages in rainfed agriculture, as well as on the number of people affected. It finds major differences across countries, and also substantial spatial variation within countries. This evidence informs a discussion of how countries may determine appropriate policies and interventions, depending on the nature and magnitude of the problem, but also on other factors such as the type of agricultural production system and countries’ level of development and their political structures. Based on this, the publication provides guidance on how countries can prioritize policies and interventions to overcome water constraints in agriculture, while ensuring efficient, sustainable and equitable access to water.

How to overcome water challenges in agriculture

  • More than three billion people live in agricultural areas with high to very high levels of water shortages and scarcity, and almost half of them face severe constraints. Furthermore, available freshwater resources per person have declined by more than 20 percent over the past two decades globally, underscoring the importance of producing more with less, especially in the agriculture sector, the world's largest user of water.
  • Improved water management, supported by effective governance and strong institutions - including secure water tenure and rights, underpinned by sound water accounting and auditing - will be essential to ensure global food security and nutrition,
  • Paths for action range from investing in water-harvesting and conservation in rainfed areas to rehabilitating and modernizing sustainable irrigation systems in irrigated areas. These must be combined with best agronomic practices, such as adopting drought-tolerant crop varieties, and improved water management tools - including effective water pricing and allocation tools, such as water rights and quotas - to ensure equitable and sustainable access. Water accounting and auditing must be, however, the starting point for any effective management strategy.
  • FAO is the custodian of SDG Indicator 6.4.2, which measures the pressure of human activities on natural freshwater resources, and SOFA offers the first spatially disaggregated representation of how things stand today - which, when meshed with historical drought frequency data, allows for a more holistic assessment of water constraints in food production.
  • About 1.2 billion people - 44 percent of them in rural areas and the remainder in small urban centers in the countryside - live in places where severe water shortages and scarcity challenge agriculture.
  • Around 40 percent of them live in Eastern and South-eastern Asia, and a slightly higher share in Southern Asia. Central Asia and Northern Africa and Western Asia are also severely affected - about one of every five people live in agricultural areas with very high water shortages and scarcity, compared to less than 4 percent in Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, Northern America and Oceania.
  • About 5 percent of people living in sub-Saharan Africa live in similar conditions, meaning that about 50 million people live in areas where severe drought has catastrophic impacts on cropland and pastureland once every three years.
  • About 11 percent of the world's rainfed cropland, or 128 million hectares, face frequent drought, as does about 14 percent of pastureland, or 656 million hectares. Meanwhile, more than 60 percent (or 171 million hectares) of irrigated cropland is highly water stressed. 11 countries, all in Northern Africa and Asia, face both challenges, making it urgent and necessary to adopt sound water accounting, clear allocation, modern technologies and to shift to less thirsty crops.

"Water should be recognized as an economic good that has a value and a price," it says, noting that customary practices leading it to be treated as a free commodity often create market failures. A price that reflects the true value of water, by contrast, sends a clear signal to users to use water wisely. At the same time, policy and governance support to ensure efficient, equitable and sustainable access for all is essential.

Between 2010 and 2050, harvested irrigated areas are projected to grow in most regions of the world and to more than double in sub-Saharan Africa, potentially benefiting hundreds of millions of rural people.

The report notes that, in some cases, small-scale and farmer-led irrigation systems can be more efficient than large-scale projects. That's a promising path for sub-Saharan Africa, where surface and underground water resources are comparatively undeveloped and only 3 percent of cropland is equipped for irrigation - and where expanding small-scale irrigation can be profitable and benefit millions of rural people

Did you know?

  • The average amount of freshwater per person in 2017 was about 43 000 m3 in Oceania, while barely reaching 1 000 m3 in Northern Africa and Western Asia.
  • Total water withdrawals per capita are highest in Central Asia, reaching almost 2 000 m3 per person in 2017, compared to less than 130 m3 in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • In least developed countries, 74 percent of rural people do not have access to safe drinking water.
  • 91 countries have national plans for rural drinking water, but only nine have allocated sufficient funding to implement them.
  • Around 41 percent of current global irrigation occurs at the expense of environmental flow requirements, which are essential to sustain ecosystems that provide life-supporting functions.
  • Biofuels require 70 to 400 times more water than do the fossil fuels they replace.
  • Major forests in areas such as the Amazon, Congo and Yangtze river basins are important sources of water vapour for areas downwind and are, therefore, crucial to rainfed agriculture.
  • This report estimates that 1.2 billion people live in agricultural areas experiencing very high levels of water stress (affecting irrigated areas) or very high drought frequency (affecting rainfed cropland and pastureland).
  • Of these, 520 million live in rural areas, while 660 million live in small urban centres surrounded by agricultural land. If we also include areas that experience high (in addition to very high) levels of water stress and drought frequency, the overall number increases to 3.2 billion, of whom 1.4 billion live in rural areas.
  • In relative terms, about 11 percent of total cropland and 14 percent of pastureland experience recurring droughts, while more than 60 percent of irrigated cropland is highly water-stressed.

Policy briefs and Interactive story

ABOUT: The State of Food and Agriculture, one of FAO's major annual flagship publications, aims at bringing to a wider audience balanced science-based assessments of important issues in the field of food and agriculture. Each edition of the report contains a comprehensive, yet easily accessible, overview of a selected topic of major relevance for rural and agriculture development and for global food security. FAO’s “The State of the World” publications provide a comprehensive overview of the most pressing global issues and challenges affecting the world today.

These global reports primarily target policy-makers and decision-makers, but are also relevant to experts, academia, students, the media and the general public. 

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