Nothing can grow without water. Therefore, the entirety of the world's food production, and thereby our very existence, depends quite literally on farmers having proper access to the water that they require for their crops to grow. However, in the next three decades, the agriculture sector must undergo a major transformation: to feed an increasing population, farmers must grow 50 to 70 percent more food, but must use significantly less water.

Agriculture may have the biggest water-related challenge of all sectors. Today, already more than 70 percent of all freshwater withdrawals globally goes to farming, however, that share needs to be significantly reduced. If we are to feed the 10 billion people estimated to live on our planet by 2050, agriculture must shift to growing more water-efficient crops and using more water-efficient practices. Threats such as increasingly degraded soil and water pollution from farming must be addressed at the same time.

Food security

In many parts of the world, farming is becoming increasingly difficult, as rainfall patterns become more unreliable due to climate change. A UN report describes droughts as “the next pandemic” and research points to the risk of drought being permanent for 25 per cent of Earth by 2050. Climate change is not the only culprit; the situation is exacerbated by poor water management and farming practices that lead to degraded soils.

The quest for the best possible agricultural water management is of particular importance to the world’s small-hold farmers. Globally, they are the backbone of the food production, and their ability to water their crops is critical for food security, health, job creation, poverty reduction, and the building of sustainable communities.

Increasing the productivity of small farms requires investments in the right kind of water management. A healthy and successful relationship between agriculture and water is not a question of finding a universal solution, it is about understanding local conditions and using this knowledge to design the best possible solutions. There are many innovative solutions, such as small-scale irrigation, rainfed agriculture, soil and water conservation, and various combinations of relevant methods. Many of these practices are already in use on a local level but they often receive little attention and almost no financial backing.

“Plants depend on green water and ignoring this will have devastating consequences for food security.”

Malin Falkenmark

A crucial aspect of successful agriculture and water management is understanding which crops farmers can and should grow. Increased diversification of crops is often advised, as it benefits the crops, soil, biodiversity, and improves how they all relate to each other. A recurring advice is increased diversification, something which will often benefit the crops, the soil, and the biodiversity – and how they relate to each other. The challenge is to simultaneously improve water management, improve yields and give more people access to clean water and safe sanitation.

Water management

One important breakthrough in the understanding of how smallholder farmers can become more resilient is linked to SIWI’s Senior Scientific Advisor, the globally renowned water expert Malin Falkenmark, who coined the term green water. Green water is, simply put, the moisture trapped in the soil.

Falkenmark suggests that proper management of this resource is a vital response to the need for sustainable farming, most notably in Africa, where it would have great positive impacts on food security on the continent. Improved food production will, in turn, reduce the need for food importation, which will create jobs and help stimulate local and national economies. Parallel to that, farming based on good rainwater management is a sustainable and resilient form of agriculture. On a continent increasingly faced with the effects of climate change, this is paramount.

Water pollution

There is also a far more problematic reverse linkage between agriculture and water which needs urgent attention. Globally, agricultural practices are responsible for a large proportion of the pollutants that slowly make their way to the seathrough the watercourses and groundwater that billions of people rely onThis aspect is of outmost importance and an integral part of several SIWI initiatives and projects. One such project is SIWI’s extensive work surrounding the source-to-sea concept, which highlights connections between what happens on land, along watercourses, and in the sea.