As the International Year of Freshwater, 2003 is an opportunity to focus on the role of water as a precious and finite resource that we must use carefully. To feed an additional 2 billion people by 2030, water needs to be used more efficiently.

Agriculture is the biggest water consumer. It uses around 70 percent of all freshwater withdrawals worldwide. With a growing world population, agriculture will face more competition from industrial and domestic water users. This is why agriculture will have to use water more efficiently.

Rainfed agriculture accounts for 60 percent of food production in developing countries on 80 percent of arable land. Only 20 percent of the arable land in developing countries is irrigated, but it produces around 40 percent of all crops and close to 60 percent of cereal production.

The contribution of irrigation to world crop production is expected to increase in coming decades: the irrigated area in developing countries is expected to increase by 40 million hectares (20 percent) by 2030. This is less than half of the increase over the last 35 years (99 million hectares).

The reasons for this slowdown are:

  • The growth rate of food demand will decrease.

  • Suitable areas for irrigation will be increasingly scarce in some countries.

  • The cost of irrigation investment will rise.

Irrigation expansion will be strongest in land-scarce areas where irrigation is already very important: mainly in South and East Asia, and in the Near East and North Africa.

There will be no overall shortage of land or water for irrigation, but serious problems will persist in some developing countries and regions. One in five developing countries will face water shortages by 2030.

Agriculture will have to improve the performance of both irrigated and rainfed production. Investments for smarter water-saving agricultural practices and better water management are urgently needed. Agriculture's potential needs to be unlocked to resolve the world's water problems and to use scarce water resources much more productively.

The technical solutions to produce 'more crop per drop' exist. But investments and political will are often lacking to improve rainfed production and modernize irrigation systems and to respond to the needs of people in rural areas.

Unless national governments and funding agencies make strategic choices in favour of agricultural water management, agriculture will not be in a position to maintain necessary water allocations for food produced by irrigation.

It is therefore essential:

  • to recognize that agriculture is the sector where the potential for water productivity gains is highest,

  • to accept that all sources of water (rain, surface water, groundwater and wastewater) are important to achieve food security where water is scarce,

  • to create the right policy, institutions and market incentives to increase water-use productivity in agriculture,

  • to move from supply- to demand-driven and service-oriented water management,

  • to realize that rural development may be better served by investments in sectors other than irrigation. The best option depends on the circumstances in each country.

The International Year of Freshwater will be a great step forward if the international community focuses more attention on the importance of water management in rural areas.

Erwin Northoff
Information Officer, FAO
[email protected]
(+39) 06 570 53105