WASAG – The Global Framework on Water Scarcity in Agriculture

Expert consultation workshop on Desalination for Agriculture Development (DAD)

Addressing opportunities and challenges in the context of changing climate and the global agricultural commodity market

Date: 20 – 21 March 2024 , FAO, Headquarter, Mexico room, Roma, Italy 


Agriculture is by far the largest consumer of the Earth's available freshwater: 70% of “blue water” withdrawals from watercourses and groundwater are for agricultural usage, and will be severely affected by water scarcity. By 2050, the global water demand of agriculture is estimated to increase by a further 19% due to irrigational needs. Approximately 40% of the world's food is currently cultivated in irrigated areas (Hanjra et al, 2010).

In the backdrop of shifting climate patterns characterized by rising temperatures, rainfall variability, heatwaves, and increased evapotranspiration, the agricultural sector witnesses substantial setbacks such as crop failures and production shortfalls. These challenges disproportionately affect both “irrigated and rainfed agriculture, leaving vulnerable farming communities and food security at risk. Climate change has led to a reduction in cereal yields. In Near East and North Africa (NENA) region wheat yields decreased by about 20% in some areas.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had impacts on food security, exacerbating land and water inefficiencies. Food price increases were recorded in 2020. The outbreak of the Ukraine war, which further exacerbated the situation, led to a significant surge in food prices. The FAO Food Price Index reached an all-time high in March 2022. This increase in international food prices led to a significant rise in the import costs of food, particularly affecting countries heavily dependent on food imports. Additionally, world fertilizer prices soared, mainly due to rising energy and natural gas prices, which impacted the global agricultural input import costs. (SOFI 2023 - State of food security and nutrition in the world).

In this precarious landscape, non-conventional water resources emerge as a ray of hope. These untapped sources, including desalination, reclaimed water use, and rainwater harvesting, offer alternative solutions to meet water demands for agriculture production. Nowadays, desalination is broadly, and definitely, considered as an efficient mechanism to deal with the challenge of water resource shortage once water demand management measures are implemented, notably in coastal regions where water supplies are scarce or unreliable (Barrón et al., 2015).

The worldwide population relying on desalinated seawater is expected to increase from 7.5% of the world population in 2015 to a projected 18% in 2050 (Cao, L. et al., 2017). Furthermore, in the last six years, the world total water desalination capacity, including brackish water and seawater desalination, increased steadily with an annual rate of about 9% (3ia et al, 2019). Likewise, the global production capacity of desalinated seawater is expected to double by 2040 (Russo et al., 2019).

However, if desalination is already admitted as guaranteed solution to satisfy municipal and industrial water needs, its wide spreading application in irrigation presents a set of challenges and opportunities that require careful consideration to make it affordable and sustainable solution.

In line with these dynamics and under the framework of the Global framework on water Scarcity in Agriculture (WASAG) and the NENA Regional Water Scarcity Initiative (WSI), FAO alongside its partners, is organizing an Experts Consultation workshop on Desalination for Agriculture Development to address opportunities and challenges in the context of changing climate and the global agricultural commodity market.


The main objectives of the workshop are:

  1. Enhancing Common Understanding: To deepen and share knowledge about the opportunities and challenges of using desalinated water in agriculture, particularly in the context of climate change and agricultural market fluctuations.
  2. Developing Guidance - To identify key milestones and criteria to support decision making and propose recommendations for the safe and sustainable use of desalinated water in agriculture development, aimed at enhancing food security.
  3. Fostering Connections and Dialogue: To encourage dialogue on strategies to foster informed decision for safe and sustainable use of desalinated water resources in agriculture sector.

Expected Outputs

The workshop is expected to deliver the following outputs:

  1. Expert Contributions: Presentations and inputs from national, regional, and international experts exploring topics like agronomic prospects, economic and environmental sustainability, technological advances, social inclusion, operational capacity, and regulatory frameworks to form a comprehensive chapter in the event’s proceedings.
  2. Policy Recommendations: Formulation of policy guidelines and recommendations for governments and stakeholders for promoting investment in desalinated water for agriculture.
  3. FAO Publication: A document providing an update on the state of desalination opportunities and challenges and offering guidance to member states on leveraging desalination for sustainable agricultural development.

Methodological approach

The workshop will use the following methodology: 

  1. Background paper: Cather and analyze data and information from available literature to identify state of the art of the desalination for agriculture, key trends, insights and discussion questions. This paper served to identify key experts and questions for discussions at the workshop.
  2. Presentations by Experts: Invite key experts to present current research, case studies, and insights on pertinent topics. Utilize these presentations as a basis for further discussion at the roundtable.
  3. Roundtable Discussions: Organize expert panels on specific themes such as agronomy, economics, environment, technology, social aspects, and governance. Foster in- depth exploration of each theme through structured dialogue chaired by a moderator.
  4. Report Compilation: Compile a comprehensive report summarizing the discussions, findings, and recommendations from the workshop. Ensure the report is structured to reflect the different themes and sessions of the workshop.
  5. Publication Development: Develop a publication based on the workshop's proceedings, to be published by FAO. Include expert contributions, research findings, and policy recommendations on desalination for agriculture development.


Day 1

9:00–9:30 – Registration of participants

9:30–10:00 – Welcome, opening and introduction

  • Welcome by Mr. Lifeng Li, Director, Land and Water Division, FAO
  • Opening speech by Alain Meysonnier, President IME
  • Presentation by FAO about the objectives and scope of the roundtable

10:00–11:00 – Theme 1: Agronomic opportunities and concerns                  

  • Presentation: Li Zhongyang, Institute of Farmland Irrigation, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences 

Discussion on Theme 1: Which improvements in irrigation management are preconditions providing for the possibility of using desalinated water?; Which are the main agronomic concerns on the use of desalination water in irrigation? Which high value crops are recommended in such cases?       

11:00–11:30 – Coffee Break

11:30–12:30 – Theme 2: Economic sustainability and financing

  • Presentation: Dr Amgad Elmahdi, Regional Manager for MENA Region, Green Climate Fund

Discussion on Theme 2: What are the main factors which could ensure economic sustainability to projects of agricultural development using desalinated waters?; Is it necessary to subsidize such projects, for investment and/or maintenance, depending on the ability of farmers to pay for water?; How to promote investment of private sector in desalination for agriculture?    

12:30–13:30 – Theme 3: Environmental sustainability

  •  Presentation: Presentation: Robin Degron, Director, Mediterranean Action Plan (MAP) Blue Plan, UN Environment Programme (UNEP)

Discussion on Theme 3: What are the conditions for agriculture with desalinated water to be environmentally friendly?; What are exactly the chemical substances to master within the brine discharges?; What solutions have been developed to reach zero liquid discharged ; How can renewable energy contribute to reduce the production of greenhouse gases from desalination plants?

13:30–14:30 – Lunch Break

14:30–15:30 – Theme 4: Technological advances and trends

  • Presentation: Hubert Fleming, Dean of the Academy, International Desalination Association (IDA)

Discussion on Theme 4: Are there technological advances to make the cost of desalination more affordable for agriculture?;Should other technologies like electrodialysis and emerging technologies be more considered, specifically for brackish water?

15:30–16:30 – Theme 5: Social inclusion and acceptance Presentation: thematic expert

  • Presentation: Javier Mateo-Sagasta, Coordinator-Water quality, International Water Management Institute (IWMI)

Discussion on Themes 5: How to make desalination solution more acceptable by farmer?;How to improve public acceptance of desalination for agriculture avoiding politization?

17:00–19:00 – Reception Dinner

Day 2

9:00–10:00 – Theme 6: Capacity for operation and maintenance

  • Presentation: José Francisco Maestre Valero, Polytechnic University of Cartagena, spain

Discussion on Themes 6: What are the main fields (topics, types of public) of training to ensure good operation and maintenance capacity regarding irrigation with desalinated waters?; How to promote international cooperation in knowledge sharing and capacity building on these fields?  international cooperation in knowledge sharing and capacity building on these fields?

10:00 – 11:00 – Theme 7 : Political, institutional, regulatory framework and   governance

  • Presentation on policies and institutions: Manoel Sapiano,  CEO Water & Energy Agency, Malta 

Discussion on Theme 7: What effective political and state-level strategies can drive widespread adoption of desalination technology?

11:00–11:30 – Coffee Break

11:30–12:30 – Theme 7 cont: Political, institutional, regulatory framework and governance

  • Presentation on governance: David L SEDLAK, Director, Berkeley Water Center, Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, University of California, Berkeley

Discussion on Theme 7: Can desalination for irrigation truly be, an adapted, sustainable solution? what are the necessary safeguards and best practices on governance? 

12:30–13:30 – Lunch Break

  • Synthesis: Conclusions and recommendations

15:30–16:00 – Closing

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