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Opinion: The Water Deficit

Current farming practices draw too much of the world’s freshwater supplies to be sustainable. A change is needed to support growing agricultural demand.

By | August 23, 2011

A woman watering vegetables in a wetland in MozambiqueMATTHEW MCCARTNEY

The pictures look familiar to the point of grim cliché. Starving children in Somalia dying in droves as drought desiccates the landscape. Yes, we have seen this horrific scene before and too many times.

But what's happening there, while an extreme example, is not an isolated event. It is just one of a series of food-related crises of the past year that have many questioning the ability of current agriculture systems to provide adequate food, fiber and fuel in the face of environmental, population and political challenges. The famine in northern Somalia was preceded by weather-related crop losses over the last year in Russia and Australia, which contributed to a rapid rise in food prices. This in turn fueled food insecurity throughout the developing world and contributed to unrest in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere.

Much of today's farming problems stem from decreasing availability of freshwater. Agriculture currently withdraws about 70 to 90 percent of our developed water supplies, and increased use of water for irrigation  in many of the world's "breadbasket" river basins has already depleted major rivers, including the Indus, the Colorado, the Yellow River, the Jordan, and the Murray-Darling, and caused steep drops in levels of groundwater. With climate change further constraining water availability, how can we expect farmers to achieve 70 percent more food production over the next 30 years to keeping pace with the growing population?

There is simply not enough water to support farming as it is currently practiced.

A man collects water for irrigation from a wetlands in Matobos, Zimbabwe.
A man collects water for irrigation from a wetlands in Matobos, Zimbabwe.
EDWARD CHUMA

A new report, released at World Water Week in Stockholm this week, warns of the urgent need to reconsider how critical water, land, and ecosystem resources are used to boost crop yields. Produced by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) with a range of partners, the report proposes how water resources can continue to support the health of an ecosystem while addressing the demands of farmers and other local users.

Technically, it is possible to "fix" agriculture, while ensuring long-term sustainability and environmental health. But in devising solutions, we must assign value to ecosystems, recognize environmental and livelihood tradeoffs, and balance the rights of a variety of users and interests. And we cannot ignore the inequities that result when such measures are adopted, such as the reallocation of water from poor to rich, the clearing of land to make way for more productive farmland, or the preservation of a wetland system that limits fishing rights.

But the changes required to find a balancing act between ecosystem health and food security are not incredibly radical. For example, farmers upstream could adopt practices that would yield good quality, clean water for the downstream cities. City dwellers would make payments to these farmers for the cost associated with these new practices; and for investments in more sustainable practices that would produce more food with less water.

Other possibilities include efforts to store water, prevent erosion, promote vegetation, and recharge groundwater—all necessary for healthy environments and agriculture. Indeed, watershed programs across India and elsewhere in Asia are working with poor rural communities to establish more water-conservative farming strategies.

A woman with her crops grown in a wetland in South Africa
A woman with her crops grown in a wetland in South Africa
MUTSA MASIYADUMA

Furthermore, farmers in some of the driest regions of the world are incorporating trees into their farms, which help stabilize water resources for the entire area while providing natural fertilizers for their crops and fodder for their animals.

These activities offer hope that farming can be transformed into a sustainable practice and expanded with the growing population. But to fulfill the promise of this new movement that embraces both agriculture and conservation, change must take place on a massive scale and on a global stage. Whether it takes place in the laboratory or in the field, we need nothing short of a revolution in the way we think about land and its cultivation. But with farmers and conservationists working together, we just might ensure that the world's most vulnerable people have enough to eat, while preserving the ecosystems that cradle us all.

David Molden is Deputy Director General of Research at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), and a co-author of the new report published by IWMI and UNEP, “An Ecosystem Services Approach to Water and Food Security,” released this week at the World Water Week in Stockholm.

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Comments

Avatar of: litdoc

Anonymous

August 23, 2011

Want more water and lower food prices?  Stop subsidizing Ethanol made from corn.

Avatar of: Ed Rybicki

Ed Rybicki

Posts: 82

August 23, 2011

Ethanol from maize is such a minor problem in the global scale of things as to be irrelevant.  What IS relevant is that farmers the world over have to get used to a new way of doing things - or of not doing them at all in certain areas.  Certain very BIG areas.  Like most of the Sahel, most of Somalia and Ethiopia, a large portion of South Africa, a big chunk of the Indian subcontinent, a significant portion of China, southern California....

Getting the picture? Many of the places where intensive or even extensive agriculture has been practiced, are simply unsuitable because of the growing water deficit they incur.  And once those aquifers are gone, they're gone....

I live in an area (S Africa's Western Cape) which has been at 100% of available fresh water usage for years now - the only reason we don't have major problems is because the winter rains have been good.  But this year they're not - and a dry summer is coming.  The gardens will die - flower as well as market.  Sad, but a fact of life.  Only we don't depend on them like so many others do.

Time to wise up and switch off the taps, people.

Avatar of: Guest

Anonymous

August 23, 2011

My experiences are limited to India.We have accurate  record of last 100 years of mans sun rainfall.On average rainfall is  continue  same quantity.In 1911 population of India was 200 million in 2011 population is  one billion 300  million.How can manssun provide  water this vast population.Another problem is Indians using water lavishly.Poor,rich  farmers cities dweller all are using water  as  their private property. How can nature help to this kind of selfish people?When people understand that for  their  sorrowful condition they are only responsible than only we can use water carefully..

Avatar of: Joan

Anonymous

August 23, 2011

Arid, underdeveloped regions of the world are not the only areas where better water management is needed. Check out the mid west farming in the US. Water is pumped from deep wells and sprayed aerially on crops. Much of the water is evaporated before it even waters the crops. There are other systems where drip systems are utilized excessively to force grow plant material substantially faster in order to harvest sooner. In this case, in surrounding areas the water tables are significantly diminished. We may need to limit the amount of water distributed in any 24 hour period or during a growing season. 

Avatar of: Anumakonda Jagadeesh

Anonymous

August 23, 2011

Excellent article on Water Deficit .

A Farming practice " Deficit Irrigation" is a solution to conserve water.

Deficit
irrigation (DI) is a watering strategy that
can be applied by different types of irrigation
application methods. The correct application of DI requires thorough
understanding of the yield response to water (crop sensitivity to drought
stress) and of the economic impact of reductions in harvest. In regions where water resources
are restrictive it can be more profitable for a farmer to maximize crop water
productivity instead of maximizing the harvest per unit land The
saved water can be used for other purposes or to irrigate extra units of land.

 

Dr.A.Jagadeesh  Nellore (AP), India

E-mail: Anumakonda.jagadeesh@gmail.com

Avatar of: Ronald Welsh

Anonymous

August 23, 2011

water is the next big world crisis and not just for agriculture.  think of all the water for yards, golf courses, swimming pools, etc.  I dare to think what regulations will need to be imposed for future generations.

Avatar of: Patricia Boley

Patricia Boley

Posts: 1457

August 23, 2011

I think a different approach is needed to solve this and other issues (oil). It is obvious that our current way of living is unsustainable. Limiting human population is inevitable. Adapting sustainable practices like recycling, composting, and permaculture would also help ease the burden on this planets resources.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 23, 2011

Want more water and lower food prices?  Stop subsidizing Ethanol made from corn.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 23, 2011

Ethanol from maize is such a minor problem in the global scale of things as to be irrelevant.  What IS relevant is that farmers the world over have to get used to a new way of doing things - or of not doing them at all in certain areas.  Certain very BIG areas.  Like most of the Sahel, most of Somalia and Ethiopia, a large portion of South Africa, a big chunk of the Indian subcontinent, a significant portion of China, southern California....

Getting the picture? Many of the places where intensive or even extensive agriculture has been practiced, are simply unsuitable because of the growing water deficit they incur.  And once those aquifers are gone, they're gone....

I live in an area (S Africa's Western Cape) which has been at 100% of available fresh water usage for years now - the only reason we don't have major problems is because the winter rains have been good.  But this year they're not - and a dry summer is coming.  The gardens will die - flower as well as market.  Sad, but a fact of life.  Only we don't depend on them like so many others do.

Time to wise up and switch off the taps, people.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 23, 2011

My experiences are limited to India.We have accurate  record of last 100 years of mans sun rainfall.On average rainfall is  continue  same quantity.In 1911 population of India was 200 million in 2011 population is  one billion 300  million.How can manssun provide  water this vast population.Another problem is Indians using water lavishly.Poor,rich  farmers cities dweller all are using water  as  their private property. How can nature help to this kind of selfish people?When people understand that for  their  sorrowful condition they are only responsible than only we can use water carefully..

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 23, 2011

Arid, underdeveloped regions of the world are not the only areas where better water management is needed. Check out the mid west farming in the US. Water is pumped from deep wells and sprayed aerially on crops. Much of the water is evaporated before it even waters the crops. There are other systems where drip systems are utilized excessively to force grow plant material substantially faster in order to harvest sooner. In this case, in surrounding areas the water tables are significantly diminished. We may need to limit the amount of water distributed in any 24 hour period or during a growing season. 

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 23, 2011

Excellent article on Water Deficit .

A Farming practice " Deficit Irrigation" is a solution to conserve water.

Deficit
irrigation (DI) is a watering strategy that
can be applied by different types of irrigation
application methods. The correct application of DI requires thorough
understanding of the yield response to water (crop sensitivity to drought
stress) and of the economic impact of reductions in harvest. In regions where water resources
are restrictive it can be more profitable for a farmer to maximize crop water
productivity instead of maximizing the harvest per unit land The
saved water can be used for other purposes or to irrigate extra units of land.

 

Dr.A.Jagadeesh  Nellore (AP), India

E-mail: Anumakonda.jagadeesh@gmail.com

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 23, 2011

water is the next big world crisis and not just for agriculture.  think of all the water for yards, golf courses, swimming pools, etc.  I dare to think what regulations will need to be imposed for future generations.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 23, 2011

I think a different approach is needed to solve this and other issues (oil). It is obvious that our current way of living is unsustainable. Limiting human population is inevitable. Adapting sustainable practices like recycling, composting, and permaculture would also help ease the burden on this planets resources.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 23, 2011

Want more water and lower food prices?  Stop subsidizing Ethanol made from corn.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 23, 2011

Ethanol from maize is such a minor problem in the global scale of things as to be irrelevant.  What IS relevant is that farmers the world over have to get used to a new way of doing things - or of not doing them at all in certain areas.  Certain very BIG areas.  Like most of the Sahel, most of Somalia and Ethiopia, a large portion of South Africa, a big chunk of the Indian subcontinent, a significant portion of China, southern California....

Getting the picture? Many of the places where intensive or even extensive agriculture has been practiced, are simply unsuitable because of the growing water deficit they incur.  And once those aquifers are gone, they're gone....

I live in an area (S Africa's Western Cape) which has been at 100% of available fresh water usage for years now - the only reason we don't have major problems is because the winter rains have been good.  But this year they're not - and a dry summer is coming.  The gardens will die - flower as well as market.  Sad, but a fact of life.  Only we don't depend on them like so many others do.

Time to wise up and switch off the taps, people.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 23, 2011

My experiences are limited to India.We have accurate  record of last 100 years of mans sun rainfall.On average rainfall is  continue  same quantity.In 1911 population of India was 200 million in 2011 population is  one billion 300  million.How can manssun provide  water this vast population.Another problem is Indians using water lavishly.Poor,rich  farmers cities dweller all are using water  as  their private property. How can nature help to this kind of selfish people?When people understand that for  their  sorrowful condition they are only responsible than only we can use water carefully..

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 23, 2011

Arid, underdeveloped regions of the world are not the only areas where better water management is needed. Check out the mid west farming in the US. Water is pumped from deep wells and sprayed aerially on crops. Much of the water is evaporated before it even waters the crops. There are other systems where drip systems are utilized excessively to force grow plant material substantially faster in order to harvest sooner. In this case, in surrounding areas the water tables are significantly diminished. We may need to limit the amount of water distributed in any 24 hour period or during a growing season. 

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 23, 2011

Excellent article on Water Deficit .

A Farming practice " Deficit Irrigation" is a solution to conserve water.

Deficit
irrigation (DI) is a watering strategy that
can be applied by different types of irrigation
application methods. The correct application of DI requires thorough
understanding of the yield response to water (crop sensitivity to drought
stress) and of the economic impact of reductions in harvest. In regions where water resources
are restrictive it can be more profitable for a farmer to maximize crop water
productivity instead of maximizing the harvest per unit land The
saved water can be used for other purposes or to irrigate extra units of land.

 

Dr.A.Jagadeesh  Nellore (AP), India

E-mail: Anumakonda.jagadeesh@gmail.com

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 23, 2011

water is the next big world crisis and not just for agriculture.  think of all the water for yards, golf courses, swimming pools, etc.  I dare to think what regulations will need to be imposed for future generations.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 23, 2011

I think a different approach is needed to solve this and other issues (oil). It is obvious that our current way of living is unsustainable. Limiting human population is inevitable. Adapting sustainable practices like recycling, composting, and permaculture would also help ease the burden on this planets resources.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 24, 2011

How about pro actively reducing the population, not just limiting it? Once and for all we would end our problems, it would be a final solution.

Avatar of: EcoSam

Anonymous

August 24, 2011

Permaculture is the way forward.

Avatar of: Molec_biologist@yahoo.com

Anonymous

August 24, 2011

A literal perennial revolution in agriculture is needed to solve this issue. Throughout our centuries of farming mankind has primarily focused on improving annual varieties of foodstuffs. We have developed strains that yield far greater than their ancestral plants which is a good step in feeding more people, however at the same time many of these ancestral varieties are perennial or have perennial relatives. Selective breeding of these varieties can greatly increase yield, much as it has to the annual varieties we use now.

How can perennial foodstuffs help solve this water problem?

Perennials develop deep root structures and are able to grow on less water once established. Furthermore this root structure stabilizes the soil, prevents runoff and results in more rain water being absorbed into the soil rather than quickly running off into streams and increasing sediment burden and pollution. Perennial crops eliminate the need for yearly tilling, further reducing runoff and loss of fertile soil. They do not require as much fertilizer as their developed root systems are more capable of absorbing nutrients from the soil, and they also tend to compete much better with weeds, reducing the need for herbicide application.In the long run,erennial crops would also reduce the cost of food as they would not require the purchase of new hybrid seeds every year while reducing other costs.

Avatar of: Ronald Welsh

Anonymous

August 24, 2011

bingo!  science will hopefully keep us ahead of the pack and obviously more drought resistant plants are needed.  I live in Oklahoma and we are burning up this year, almost no agriculture products this year and same in Texas.
Support agriculture, both sustainable and traditional for the future.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 24, 2011

Permaculture is the way forward.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 24, 2011

A literal perennial revolution in agriculture is needed to solve this issue. Throughout our centuries of farming mankind has primarily focused on improving annual varieties of foodstuffs. We have developed strains that yield far greater than their ancestral plants which is a good step in feeding more people, however at the same time many of these ancestral varieties are perennial or have perennial relatives. Selective breeding of these varieties can greatly increase yield, much as it has to the annual varieties we use now.

How can perennial foodstuffs help solve this water problem?

Perennials develop deep root structures and are able to grow on less water once established. Furthermore this root structure stabilizes the soil, prevents runoff and results in more rain water being absorbed into the soil rather than quickly running off into streams and increasing sediment burden and pollution. Perennial crops eliminate the need for yearly tilling, further reducing runoff and loss of fertile soil. They do not require as much fertilizer as their developed root systems are more capable of absorbing nutrients from the soil, and they also tend to compete much better with weeds, reducing the need for herbicide application.In the long run,erennial crops would also reduce the cost of food as they would not require the purchase of new hybrid seeds every year while reducing other costs.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 24, 2011

bingo!  science will hopefully keep us ahead of the pack and obviously more drought resistant plants are needed.  I live in Oklahoma and we are burning up this year, almost no agriculture products this year and same in Texas.
Support agriculture, both sustainable and traditional for the future.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 24, 2011

How about pro actively reducing the population, not just limiting it? Once and for all we would end our problems, it would be a final solution.

Avatar of: Mikerowearray

Anonymous

August 24, 2011

How about pro actively reducing the population, not just limiting it? Once and for all we would end our problems, it would be a final solution.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 24, 2011

Permaculture is the way forward.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 24, 2011

A literal perennial revolution in agriculture is needed to solve this issue. Throughout our centuries of farming mankind has primarily focused on improving annual varieties of foodstuffs. We have developed strains that yield far greater than their ancestral plants which is a good step in feeding more people, however at the same time many of these ancestral varieties are perennial or have perennial relatives. Selective breeding of these varieties can greatly increase yield, much as it has to the annual varieties we use now.

How can perennial foodstuffs help solve this water problem?

Perennials develop deep root structures and are able to grow on less water once established. Furthermore this root structure stabilizes the soil, prevents runoff and results in more rain water being absorbed into the soil rather than quickly running off into streams and increasing sediment burden and pollution. Perennial crops eliminate the need for yearly tilling, further reducing runoff and loss of fertile soil. They do not require as much fertilizer as their developed root systems are more capable of absorbing nutrients from the soil, and they also tend to compete much better with weeds, reducing the need for herbicide application.In the long run,erennial crops would also reduce the cost of food as they would not require the purchase of new hybrid seeds every year while reducing other costs.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 24, 2011

bingo!  science will hopefully keep us ahead of the pack and obviously more drought resistant plants are needed.  I live in Oklahoma and we are burning up this year, almost no agriculture products this year and same in Texas.
Support agriculture, both sustainable and traditional for the future.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 25, 2011

Every time we improve agricultural technology the end result is increased population, not food security.  Bottom line, isn't birth control, even forced birth control, more ethical that starvation?  This goes for OECD countries as well as third world countries. 

Avatar of: it

Anonymous

August 25, 2011

Are you being sarcastic, Mikerowearray?

Avatar of: Barquint

Anonymous

August 25, 2011

Mikerowearray, how about leading by example in your campaign for "active" population reduction?

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 25, 2011

Are you being sarcastic, Mikerowearray?

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 25, 2011

Mikerowearray, how about leading by example in your campaign for "active" population reduction?

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 25, 2011

Every time we improve agricultural technology the end result is increased population, not food security.  Bottom line, isn't birth control, even forced birth control, more ethical that starvation?  This goes for OECD countries as well as third world countries. 

Avatar of: John D

John D

Posts: 1457

August 25, 2011

Every time we improve agricultural technology the end result is increased population, not food security.  Bottom line, isn't birth control, even forced birth control, more ethical that starvation?  This goes for OECD countries as well as third world countries. 

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 25, 2011

Are you being sarcastic, Mikerowearray?

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 25, 2011

Mikerowearray, how about leading by example in your campaign for "active" population reduction?

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