Water in Agriculture – why should we care?

drip-irrigated-cropsshutterstock-joaquin-corbalan-p-scaled Photo: Joaquin Corbalan P / Shutterstock

Source: WorldWaterWeek - By Cindy Cherry - In the wake of World Food Day, this article places specific focus on the theme of water in agriculture. It highlights the main inhibitors and opportunities to progress water-food-nutrition security by providing reflections from the SIWI WWW seminar "Achieving food/ nutrition targets by 2030 through water security".

It has been more than a month since the commencement and closing of the 2022 SIWI World Water Week (WWW), yet the calls to drive sustainable, and accelerated actions to meet the world's pressing needs are ever-present.

So, why should we care?

Agriculture arguably presents some of the most critical challenges related to water today. Agriculture (and in turn food and nutrition) cannot exist without the use of water. However, the use of water for food production limits its availability for other sectors and users.

Although water and food resources are both critical for human survival, they are connected by a relationship intrinsically characterised by trade-offs – a delicate relationship that needs to balance the resources appropriately within specific contexts. Water security (SDG 6) and food security (SDG 3) cannot be viewed or effectively addressed in isolation from one another.

Status quo and emerging trends

At present, three billion people cannot afford a healthy diet, 800 million are undernourished while more than 650 million are obese, globally (1). In 2021, FAO reported that 193 million people experienced high acute food insecurity, requiring humanitarian assistance for survival. Furthermore, two-thirds of the reported population experiencing high acute food insecurity were rural food producers (2).

Currently agriculture is responsible for a significant 70% of global freshwater withdrawals.
By 2050, the global population is expected to increase from 7.8 billion to 10 billion people. To feed a population of this magnitude, food production must increase by 60-70% (3), which will further increase the agricultural demand for water – a finite and already stretched resource globally.

Rainfed agriculture, responsible for 60% of global food production (4), is a dominant feature in smallholder farming, making smallholder farmers vulnerable to increasing weather extremes. Globally, smallholder farmers are the base of our agri-food systems; however, in general they lack access to knowledge, technology, markets, and finance. According to a study conducted by the ZEF in Bonn Germany, small-scale irrigation expansion in Africa has the potential to lift 140 million people out of poverty, with an investment of less than 26 US$ per person (5).

Despite these opportunities for improvement, accelerated trends of worsening water and food insecurity indicators have been observed. This is attributed to various external system stressors, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, population growth, and the increased uncertainty and extremity of weather events. However, within agriculture, vulnerabilities are also attributed to poor water management and farming practices which lead to soil degradation.

As climate change continues to present less predictable and reliable outcomes, we must find solutions that support increased food production with less water use.
The growing global demand for food will further exacerbate the existing vulnerabilities in food and water systems, and regress SDG 2 (zero hunger) SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation) if these are not adequately addressed in practice and elevated on platforms such as the UN Food Systems Summit and the UN Water Conference.

Embracing complexity – a philosophy for accelerated change

In a closing remark of session 3 of the seminar, "Water-food-nutrition security messages for the UN Water Conference 2023", Henk Ovink (Special Envoy for International Water Affairs for the Kingdom of the Netherlands) stated the following:

"Embrace complexity. Water is cross-cutting. When we oversimplify, we silo, we fragment, and we put up barriers that keep us from reaching common goals due to divided interests. Complexity provides an opportunity to form holistic solutions and partnerships, forging transparency and accountability. Often times accountability is something we are afraid of, but it gives us insight into what is [and isn't] working."

Embracing complexity allows us to organise parallels between organisations with common goals, to form partnerships and create "soft space" to bridge divides from the farm-to-fork to achieve greater and accelerated action.

To effectively address the complexity of water and food security within the water-food nexus, we need cross-sectoral partnerships and multi-stakeholder engagement to understand the local context such that collaborative and fit-for-purpose interventions can be implemented.

Within this network, public-private partnerships are necessary to create intervention and policy synergies. Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) to large corporations play a key role in working with farmers in the farm-to-fork continuum to progress SDG 2 & 6; for example, through creating and facilitating access to climate smart innovations. While policy endorsement and the alignment of policies across sectors, mobilised by the public sector, will facilitate accelerated impact.

Such partnerships are already in action.

In Mozambique, the Nutrition-sensitive Water Productivity Project (NsWP), funded by FAO and IFAD, promotes sustainable water management and agronomic practices amongst famers. The project works in conjunction with the country's Multisectoral Action Plan for Reduction of Chronic Malnutrition in Mozambique, which involves 12 Ministries including Health, Agriculture, Finance, Education, Public Build and Habitation, Women and Social Action, Industry and Business and Planning and Development.

As solutions are pioneered, action must be accompanied by appropriate monitoring, capacity building and cross-sector sensitisation. This will inform the transparent value and use of water for food/nutrition. It will also provide opportunities for the adaptation of actions; as well as the means to unpack complex and surprising relations as interventions are implemented.

Closing remarks

The challenges faced within the water-food nexus are complex and critical. Despite global efforts to address these challenges, the number of people subject to water–food nutrition insecurity is currently increasing.

New ways of tackling these challenges need to be adopted. Significant opportunity lies in the call to embrace the complexity of these challenges by forming appropriate alliances rather than creating silos in response to over-simpered and unilateral problem statements.

Water and food security challenges are experienced cross-continental, cross-cultural and across societal divides. It is time that we bridge divides created by organisational silos to address the challenges collectively to achieve the accelerated and effective action that is required.


  1. FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO. 2022. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2022. Repurposing food and agricultural policies to make healthy diets more affordable. Rome, FAO.
  2. Global Network Against Food Crises (GNAFC)
  3. High Level Expert Forum – How to Feed the World in 2050, FAO https://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/wsfs/docs/Issues_papers/HLEF2050_Global_Agriculture.pdf
  4. FAO. 2020. The State of Food and Agriculture 2020. Overcoming water challenges in agriculture. Rome. https://doi.org/10.4060/cb1447en
  5. Policy Brief Ending Hunger by 2030 – policy actions and costs: SDG2_policybrief.pdf (zef.de)

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