To Combat Scarcity, Increase Water-Use Efficiency in Agriculture

What policymakers can do to prevent the outbreak of global "water wars."
  • Today, water scarcity affects one-third of the world’s population. When coupled with population growth and rising global incomes, it is a problem that is expected to only grow in magnitude and urgency.
  • And, yet, “water wars” are not inevitable: historically, opposing interests have more often than not successfully put aside differences to come to agreements regarding the management of transnational water basins.
  • Moving forward, policymakers have numerous opportunities to combat water scarcity via sustainable agriculture, including efforts to increase efficiency in irrigation and reduce the amount of food gone to waste every year. 
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According to some estimates, up to 250 million Africans will struggle with water scarcity in 2030. (

A version of this article originally appeared at The Broker

The South Centre has argued that “as oil conflicts were central to 20th century history, the struggle over freshwater is set to shape a new turning point in the world order.” Water scarcity, which already affects one in three people on Earth, is set to increase in magnitude and scope as the global population grows, increasing affluence drives up demand, and the climate changes. According to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), “half the world’s population will be living in areas of high water stress by 2030, including 75 to 250 million people in Africa.” In the Sahel region of Africa, desertification caused by overgrazing, unsustainable farming, and the collection of wood for fuel is already responsible for systemic crop failure, soil erosion, and devastating famine. Failure to act on water scarcity will lead to more of the same.

Though water scarcity will surely play a defining role in the 21st century, the assumption that “water wars” are inevitable is overly deterministic and assumes the worst of people. Historically, the need to manage trans-group or trans-boundary water basins has actually tended to facilitate cooperation between groups with competing interests. In the last fifty years, there have been only 37 incidents of acute conflict over water, while during the same period, approximately 295 international water agreements were negotiated and signed. According to Nidal Salim, director of the Global Institute for Water, Environment, and Health, the potential to peacefully overcome water scarcity does exist; it depends on political will, trust between nations, and real manifestations of cooperation.

To do so, leaders at all levels must prioritize efforts to cooperatively increase water-use efficiency, reduce water waste, and manage demand.

Increasing efficiency in irrigation—which is responsible for the consumption of 70 percent of the world’s total water withdrawal—would be a sensible place to start. Improved water management in agriculture could increase global water availability, catalyze development, reduce soil erosion, and lead to increased and diversified agricultural yields, augmenting our ability to feed a population projected to reach 9 billion by 2050.

Currently, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), an astonishing 60 percent of the water diverted or pumped for irrigation is wasted—via runoff into waterways or evapotranspiration. This does not have to be the case. Farmers can achieve water-use efficiency gains in a number of ways: by growing a diverse array of crops suited to local conditions, especially in drought-prone regions;  by practicing agroforestry or growing perennial crops, to build strong root systems and reduce soil erosion; by maintaining healthy soils, either by applying organic fertilizer or growing cover crops to retain soil moisture; and by adopting irrigation systems like “drip” lines that deliver water directly to plants’ roots.

In arid regions of the Middle East, improved water management in agriculture has notably augmented both water and food security. An experimental drip irrigation project run by the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme in the Syrian village of Fraytan has, for example, reduced the annual demand for water by 30 percent and increased agricultural yields by nearly 60 percent.

Another, though less intuitive, way to reduce inefficient water use in agriculture is to reduce consumer food waste, for wasting food means wasting the resources (i.e. water, land, and energy) that were used to produce it. Worldwide, 30 to 40 percent of all food produced is either lost or wasted between the stages of production and consumption.

Not only is smart water management necessary to combat scarcity, it is necessary to help our global food system adapt to a potentially harsh and uncertain future. Leaders of all persuasions should cooperate to make agriculture water-use efficiency an international priority.

Sophie Wenzlau is a Staff Researcher for the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture Program.