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For a quick overview, click on the "Area equipped for irrigation" and "Irrigated crops" infographics below.
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Irrigation areas, irrigated crops, environment
Irrigation refers to the artificial application of water to assist in the growing of crops, trees and pastures. This can be done by letting water flow over the land (surface irrigation), by spraying water under pressure over the land concerned (sprinkler irrigation), or by bringing it directly to the plant (localized irrigation).
Area equipped for irrigation
- Worldwide, in 2012 over 324 million hectares are equipped for irrigation, of which about 85 percent or 275 million ha are actually irrigated.
- Irrigated agriculture represents 20 percent of the total cultivated land, but contributes 40 percent of the total food produced worldwide.
- Sub-Saharan Africa is the region with the lowest portion of the cultivated area that is irrigated, just over 3 percent against almost 21 percent at global level. At the same time it has the highest prevalence of undernourishment, 25 percent in 2011-2013 against 12 percent at global level.
- Irrigation—in conjunction with high-yielding varieties, inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides, and the use of agricultural machinery—played a significant role in the green revolution in Asia. At present, 41 percent of the cultivated land is under irrigation against 26 percent in 1970, contributing to a considerably reduction of its undernourishment from 24 percent in 1990-92 to 14 percent in 2010-12.
- The greatest potential for expanding irrigated agriculture, considering both land and water resources, is in the Sub-Saharan Africa region, where only one fifth of the irrigation potential has been equipped, or 7.7 million ha out of a potential of 38 million ha, and in the Southern America region, where only one fourth of the potential has been equipped, or 16 million ha out of a potential of 60 million ha.
- Over 88 percent of Central Asia's and Northern Africa's irrigation potential has already been equipped, 69 percent in the Middle East and 65 percent in the Southern and Eastern Asia region.
- The Asian continent, with almost 230 million ha equipped for irrigation, represents just over 70 percent of the irrigation area worldwide. Almost 60 percent of these 220 million ha—or 42 percent of the world total—is located in only two countries, China and India, where also almost 40 percent of the world population is located.
- Asia is also the continent benefiting the most of its irrigation infrastructure, with the largest part of area equipped for irrigation that is actually irrigated (89 percent).
- In Europe the part of area equipped for irrigation actually irrigated, 65 percent, is low compared to the rest of the world. This is due to a moderate climate in a large part which allows agriculture to benefit from the available precipitation and thus not always needing to be irrigated.
- Localized and sprinkler irrigation account for about 14 percent of the total area equipped for irrigation worldwide.
- Localized irrigation has grown rapidly since the invention of cheap plastic pipes in the 1970s: from almost 0.5 million ha in 1981 to almost 9 million ha in 2010 worldwide.
- Sprinkler irrigation equips more than 35 million ha in 2010. Although considered less efficient than localized irrigation, both its cheaper prices and potential mobility explain its wider expansion.
- Most irrigation in the Northern America region uses groundwater (59 percent of its irrigated area). While groundwater is the only reliable source of water in arid countries, in countries with moderate climatic conditions it is often used in conjunction with pressurized irrigation equipment or when electricity is subsidised (reducing pumping costs).
- China is the country with the largest area equipped for irrigation, 69.4 million ha, immediately followed by India with 66.7 million ha. Outside the Asian continent, the countries with the largest irrigation areas are: the United States of America in the Americas with 26.4 million ha, Italy in Europe with 3.95 million ha, Egypt in Africa with 3.65 million ha and Australia in Oceania with 2.55 million ha.
- In 2010, China became the country with the largest irrigation area, overtaking India which ranked first for over 50 years.
- Irrigation is not limited only to the dry periods of the year. In numerous countries, supplementary irrigation is also taking place during the rainy season—for example in Myanmar for rice cultivation—to make up rainfall deficits during critical stages of the crops in order to stabilize or increase yields.
- Irrigation is known to have been practised already more than four thousand years ago. The Euphrates and Tigris rivers were the cradle of the early Mesopotamian civilizations and irrigation with their water made development of agriculture possible. In Egypt, floodwater from the Nile was already used for cultivation during pharaoh period. In Mongolia, irrigation was probably developed under the Huns in the first century of the current era.
- At least 111 million ha equipped for irrigation use a pump for water supply from the source to the field.
- One single irrigation scheme can cover over 10 000 ha in some countries such as in India, Mexico, Pakistan and Sudan for example.
- At least 33 countries have implemented an irrigation management transfer in order for the management of the irrigation schemes to be transferred from the government to the irrigators or water users.
Irrigation and environment
- In 2011, over 346 million ha of irrigated crops were harvested from the 261 million ha actually irrigated. Indeed, thanks to irrigation and if climate is favourable more than one crop cycle is permitted each year on the same area, resulting in a global cropping intensity for irrigated crops of over 130 percent.
- Irrigation contributes to 40 percent of crop production worldwide on 20 percent of the world's cultivated area that is equipped for irrigation.
- The climatic conditions allowing various cropping cycles in a year in large parts of Asia, Africa and Americas, make a significantly larger cropping intensity possible in these regions than in parts of Europe and Oceania, where irrigated crop growth in the winter season is little or non-existent.
- Asia is the continent with the highest irrigated cropping intensity (141 percent), going from just over 100 percent in Central Asia, where cropping in winter season is limited, to more than 170 percent in large parts of the Southern and Eastern Asia region.
- The combination of high cropping intensity and high rates of areas equipped for irrigation actually irrigated makes that Asia and Africa benefit the most of irrigation. In Burkina Faso, irrigated agriculture contributes significantly to food security: irrigation produced in 2010 around 10 percent of the total agricultural production for only 1 percent of the cultivated area.
- 78 percent of the world's harvested irrigated crops area is in the Asian continent.
- Over 60 percent of the irrigated area worldwide is dedicated to cereals; Asia hosts 87 percent of the irrigated cereals areas.
- Rice is the world's largest irrigated cereal, covering 47 percent of irrigated cereals area. Rice is also the main irrigated crop worldwide, covering 29 percent of the total irrigated crop area.
- Oceania is the only continent not dominated by irrigated cereals, which represent only 13 percent of the irrigated crop area. There, irrigated fodder and pastures represent almost half of the irrigated crop area (48 percent). At a smaller scale, the latter also largely prevails (51 percent) over irrigated cereals (17 percent) in the Eastern Europe and the Russian Federation.
- Diversification of irrigated crops is higher in countries with higher income, where the relative importance of irrigated cereals becomes less: the part of cereals in irrigated crop area is respectively 75, 64 and 38 percent in low-, middle- and high-income countries.
- With 76 percent of the irrigated areas of the least developed countries dedicated to cereals, irrigation there focuses on provision of staple food. In high-income countries vegetables, fruits, oil crops, and fodder and pasture diversify the irrigated crops, together covering more than half of the irrigated area, against just over 10 percent in the least developed countries.
- The world's water requirement ratio, sometimes also named irrigation efficiency—that is the amount of water required for irrigated crops over the volume withdrawn for irrigation—is around 56 percent, varying from 23 percent in areas of abundant water resources (Central America region) to 72 percent in the Northern Africa region where water scarcity calls for higher efficiency. In addition to geographical disparity, the ratio also depends on financial resources availability. It increases from 48 percent in low-income countries to 56 percent in middle-income countries and 61 percent in high income countries.
- Almost the entire crop production is from irrigated land in Djibouti, Egypt, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan. Rainfed agriculture in these arid countries is not reliable because of low precipitation.
- At a global scale, 7 700 m3 of water per hectare is withdrawn on average annually for irrigation.
- In addition to the regular crop water requirements, a layer of 10-20 cm of water is required for flood paddy rice, the world's largest irrigated crop, for land preparation and plant protection.
- Drainage facilities, in delta areas in particular, are considered as a form of flood protection. In conjunction with irrigation they also prevent waterlogging and salinization.
- The area salinized by irrigation covers over 37 million ha worldwide, thereby reducing productivity.
- Overexploitation of groundwater when water withdrawal exceeds water recharge—and its subsequent lowering of water tables—is a recurring problem in the Arabian Peninsula and the Near East. It also often leads to seawater intrusion in coastal areas, drastically deteriorating the quality of groundwater.
- In India's Tamil Nadu state, overpumping—amongst others due to subsidizing electricity thus reducing pumping costs—has lowered the water level in wells in certain areas by 25 to 30 metres in one decade.
- Almost 155 million ha are under conservation agriculture worldwide. Despite not using irrigation technologies as such, this technique enhances water use efficiency in rainfed conditions thanks to minimum soil disturbance (no tillage), soil cover and appropriate crop association.
- Some wetlands and inland valley bottoms are cultivated with minimum disturbance to the environment, as they have no or limited (mostly traditional) equipment to regulate water and control drainage. Flood recession cropping is another traditional water management technique with relatively low environmental impact, where cultivation occurs along rivers in the areas exposed as floods recede and where nothing is undertaken to retain the receding water. Over 8.6 million ha worldwide are cultivated with these traditional forms of water management.
- The drying up of the Aral Sea in Central Asia is one of the most dramatic examples of environmental tragedy caused by the mismanagement of irrigation: the sea level dropped by 17 meters and the shoreline moved 70 km since 1960s. This is due to the large diversions of water for irrigation of cotton and electricity production, resulting in little water reaching the Aral Sea.
- On a positive side, without the high productivity permitted by irrigation, at least an additional 500 million ha would be needed to reach the current agricultural production. Temperate or humid areas allowing rainfed production are often already densely populated or environmentally disturbed, therefore having no additional land for agriculture available anymore. Currently, countries reaching their limit of cultivated areas already buy or rent large areas in other less intensely developed countries, also known as land grabbing.
- Globally more than one third of the food is lost between field and fork, and thus also a large amount of water, needed to produce the food. While in poor countries most losses occur due to post-harvest losses, in rich countries losses are mainly due to throwing away the food that is not consumed.
[Date of preparation: December 2014]
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1 m3 = 1 000 litres = 35.3 cubic feet = 264.17 US gallons
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