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Water scarcity in agriculture: Causes, effects, and solutions

How does agriculture cause water scarcity?

Freshwater is the most extracted natural resource on the planet, with global usage estimated at 4 trillion m3 per year. This figure is projected to rise as consumption patterns become more resource intensive. According to the FAO, agriculture is the most water-intensive industry, accounting for almost 70% of global water withdrawal. World Bank estimates that this figure will rise by another 15% by 2050 in order to meet the growing human population.

This trend is nothing new; water consumption in agriculture has consistently risen throughout history, from the earliest farming systems right up to the Green Revolution of the 20th century, which first saw the introduction of irrigation systems. In the coming years, water consumption will continue to increase, as the agricultural industry grows and becomes more industrialised.

The scientific consensus is that this trend is unsustainable. Traditional agricultural practices have unintentionally impacted water security and caused water scarcity in regions around the globe. Currently, water demand is exceeding replenishment rates, causing the degradation of natural sources such as rivers and lakes. This also extends to groundwater sources, with more than 40% of global agricultural production reliant upon unsustainable groundwater extraction. Moreover, farms overuse chemical pesticides and fertilisers, which runoff into and pollute nearby rivers and lakes. According to UNESCO, an estimated 80% of wastewater from agriculture flows back into the ecosystem without being treated.

How does water scarcity impact agriculture?

Water scarcity harms agricultural productivity, which limits food availability and increases regional food insecurity, malnutrition, and socioeconomic hardships. Water is an increasingly erratic resource, meaning that water scarcity is highly unpredictable. Producers must contend with periods of high availability followed by sudden, devastating droughts.

These challenges tend to disproportionately impact regions that are less prepared and more vulnerable to their effects. In areas like India, China, Africa, and the Middle East, the combination of arid climates and the cultivation of water-intensive crops like rice and wheat exacerbates water shortages. Furthermore, these regions rely heavily on agriculture that relies on rainfall, which is becoming increasingly irregular due to climate change. This unpredictability leads to disruptions to planting seasons and recurring crop failures.

Water scarcity can typically be broken down into physical and economic causes. Physical water scarcity occurs when the demand for water surpasses the naturally available water resources in a region, including surface and groundwater, under existing rainfall conditions. Economic water scarcity arises in areas where, despite having plentiful water resources, there is insufficient infrastructure to store and distribute water.

Addressing water scarcity in agriculture

To ensure the future of water security and the overall prosperity of the sector, more sustainable agricultural systems must be implemented. However, this transition is likely to be a complex and challenging process due to the vastly differing capabilities and circumstances of individual farmers and nations. Broadly speaking, interventions can be split into two categories; those that look to mitigate the sector’s impact on water scarcity, and those that look to adopt more resilient food systems in preparation for growing scarcity. Strategies include:

Water conservation: Building more efficient irrigation systems is the most effective strategy for conserving water and reducing water scarcity in agriculture. The introduction of advanced, high-tech irrigation systems has significantly influenced agriculture, with digitalisation and artificial intelligence enabling precision irrigation and reducing waste. However, these technologies are not universally accessible. For smallholder farmers, more practical strategies include drip irrigation systems, as well as nighttime irrigation which minimises water losses through evaporation.

Improved storage: Improving water storage systems is key to alleviating water scarcity, particularly in regions with arid landscapes or volatile weather patterns. At a farm level, farmers can install tanks that capture and hold rainwater for later use. Meanwhile, at a national level, countries may build dams or reservoirs to collect water and pump it out to farmers in times of drought.

Circular resource use: Circularity involves transforming the traditional, linear approach to water usage into a more sustainable cycle. In the usual process, we extract fresh water from nature, treat it for use, and then discharge it as wastewater. The circularity movement aims to change this by capturing the wastewater, treating it, and then reusing it for irrigation purposes.

Resilience: Regenerative farming strategies such as agroforestry, cover cropping, and crop rotation can improve soil health and make farms more resistant to stressful conditions and build drought resistance. Distributing and planting seeds that are more resistant to drought can also safeguard farms from crop failure.

Policy: For the most affected regions, water management is stymied by poor agricultural policies and institutional support. Policymakers must focus on strategies that improve overall national water management. This includes investing in key infrastructure (such as irrigation and drainage systems) as well as incentivising innovation, reform, and accountability among agribusinesses.

Looking ahead

Shifting consumer and regulatory demands are placing increased pressure on supply chains to transition toward sustainable practices. Water conservation is pivotal to this transition. For many food and agribusinesses, managing water is complex, costly, and fraught with uncertainties. At Farrelly & Mitchell, we provide bespoke strategies that improve water management and reduce excess pollution and waste.

We recognise the importance of water conservation for the future of our planet, and we are committed to transitioning toward sustainable sourcing and usage. Our sustainability experts are well versed in this area, and can advise food and agribusinesses on optimal water treatment, storage, and usage options.  We conduct on-site assessments to identify inefficiencies and offer tailored solutions that are comprehensive, financially feasible and operationally sound.

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Author

Malachy Mitchell

Managing Director

As Farrelly and Mitchell's co-founder and Managing Director, Malachy provides unmatched expertise. Working alongside CEO's, executives, and leaders from public and private sectors, Malachy empowers agribusinesses to fully achieve their potential.

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