Global food demand is expected to increase by anywhere between 59% to 98% by 2050. However, global freshwater resources are already overstretched due to climate change and soaring population growth, and it is unclear how agricultural production will keep up with these challenges. In recent years climate-induced water shortages in urban areas have brought water scarcity to the forefront of public debate, as major cities such as São Paulo, Cape Town and Barcelona have found themselves on the brink of major water crises.
In response, policymakers have started to scrutinise and reform existing agricultural practices, which on average consume approximately 70% of fresh water supplies around the world. These reforms are part of wider ongoing efforts to conserve water resources. Many governments are now gradually enacting water-saving policies and partnering with private stakeholders to roll out climate-resilient agricultural practices and forward-thinking infrastructure projects.
In the world’s most water-scarce regions, such as the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, climate change-induced disruptions to the earth’s hydrological cycle have driven unprecedented periods of low rainfall. In fact, 14 of the world’s 20 mega-cities are now experiencing water scarcity or drought. On top of that, the challenges of growing populations and decreased rainfall are expected to worsen over time. Some 52% of the world’s projected 9.7bn population will live in water-stressed regions by 2050, according to a study by MIT. Rising water scarcity not only poses a significant threat to urban populations, but also presents a potentially significant barrier to economic development for many low- and middle-income countries, especially those that are reliant on agriculture for both domestic consumption and export revenue.
With the amount of water consumed through farming expected to increase by 20% globally by 2050, more efficient water use is required to help developing countries avoid significant economic impacts. According to a study by the European Institute of the Mediterranean, climate change and associated changes to temperature and rainfall patterns could cost economies in the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa up to 2% of their GDP by 2050. Of great concern in North Africa is the impact on agricultural activity, which is estimated to account for 77% of economic losses associated with climate change.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, around 20% of cultivated land worldwide is irrigated, yet it contributes to approximately 40% of total food output. In many parts of the world, farmers are still heavily reliant on increasingly inconsistent and reduced rainfall patterns, which continues to drive food insecurity. In addition, there are regional differences in the prevalence of severe food insecurity. In 2016 about 27% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa was classified as severely food insecure, which is almost four times as high as any other region, and by 2017 this figure had risen to 34%.
Expanded irrigation is one solution to the global challenge of decreasing rainfall and increasing food consumption. In a study published in December 2018, the Malabo Montpellier Panel, a group of international agriculture experts and policymakers, estimated that African countries could irrigate a further 47m ha of land, which would boost productivity and accelerate economic growth. Among developing economies on the continent, the Moroccan government’s largescale expansion of irrigation through infrastructure investment, training programmes, subsidies and tax exemptions has set the benchmark for other countries to follow. As of 2018 Morocco had equipped 20% of its land for irrigation, one of the highest rates in Africa. This was achieved through the well-planned policies of the Green Morocco Plan (Plan Maroc Vert, PMV) that was launched in 2008, which aims to expand and modernise irrigation techniques to save 1.4bn cu metres of water annually. The PMV has so far been a resounding success. For example, the area of land equipped with drip irrigation reached 450,000 ha by 2014. The overall aim is to increase this figure to 550,000 ha by 2020.
In Kenya the government is also focusing on expanding its irrigation infrastructure through centralised planning and implementation of national water strategies. Currently, only 150,570 ha, or 2.6%, of Kenya’s arable land is equipped for irrigation. The government wants to increase this by 32,000 ha per year and is targeting 704,000 ha of new irrigation areas by 2030. To this end the government issued the Irrigation Bill at the end of 2017 with the goal of setting up a National Irrigation Development Authority. The authority will be responsible for developing and improving irrigation infrastructure, providing irrigation services to private farming firms and smallholders, and offering technical advisory services during the rollout of irrigation technology. In June 2019 the bill underwent a mediation process in the National Assembly to try to craft a version of the stalled legislation that both houses would pass.
Regional governments are increasingly pursuing irrigation plans alongside the rise of new technology. Drip irrigation, for instance, can reduce water use by 30-70% and raise crop yields by 20-90%, according to a World Bank study. In Morocco, the government aims to equip 700,000 ha, or 50% of total irrigated land, with drip technology by 2022, up from 500,000 ha in 2018 and 163,000 ha in 2008. The drip technology that has already been implemented saves the country about 800m cu metres of water annually.
In Algeria, where per capita water availability is less than 300 cu metres per year, which is well below the 500 cu metres threshold for the UN definition of absolute water scarcity, areas irrigated using water-saving methods grew from 90,000 ha in 2000 to 600,000 ha in 2018, representing 50% of total irrigated land. The government achieved this by investing $18bn in improving water security in the 2015-19 period. By introducing water-efficient technology across farmlands, the government’s medium-term goal to achieve a 20% decrease in water consumption levels in the agricultural sector is becoming much more feasible, and would free up resources to irrigate a further 200,000 ha.
Mexico is also on a nationwide water-saving drive through the rehabilitation and modernisation of irrigation systems. In Guanajuato state, one of Mexico’s most important agricultural regions, the local government has been investing in modernisation programmes to boost crop yields and reduce water usage. As part of its State Development Plan 2035, Guanajuato’s government has increased funding for irrigation modernisation programmes, which saw public investment in drip, gravity and sprinkling irrigation systems rise from $1.7m in 2017 to $3.2m in 2018.
In addition to drip irrigation, some governments have begun implementing other precision farming applications, such as solar-powered pumps that transport well water to drip irrigation systems, and soil and crop systems monitored by drones. According to the European Committee of Associations of Manufacturers of Agricultural Machinery, precision farming expanded rapidly between 2007 and 2017, and in 2019, 70-80% of new farming equipment used globally contains precision agriculture components.
Tunisian entrepreneurs and companies are at the forefront of developing and piloting this kind of technology. For example, since 2014 local firm Chahbani Technologies has been manufacturing and selling buried diffusers, a system based on early injection and water storage in underground layers of trees, vegetables and container plants. The technology uses less water than drip irrigation, raises crop yields and decreases production costs for farmers by up to 30%.
Switching & Diversifying Crops
Governments elsewhere are having to make difficult and sometimes unpopular water policy decisions in the face of climate change and rapid population growth. Egypt, for example, suffers from an annual water deficit of 30bn cu metres. Therefore, water security is currently a major policy priority for the government, particularly during the ongoing construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which could have a negative impact on Egypt’s Nile water share. The Nile River provides roughly 85% of Egypt’s water, and, when completed, GERD could see Egypt’s water supply reduced by around 60bn cu metres over a 10-year period, potentially resulting in economic losses of approximately $2bn per year, Khaled AbuZeid, secretary-general of the Egyptian Water Partnership, an NGO established in 2003, told local media in October 2018. The construction of the dam is expected to be completed by 2022.
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