Public and private actors tackle water scarcity in the agriculture sector through policy reform, technology adoption and infrastructure investment


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 pace 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.

Responding to this, 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 precious water resources.

Indeed, many governments are now gradually enacting water-saving public policies and partnering with private sector stakeholders to roll out climate-resilient agricultural practices and more forward-thinking infrastructure projects.

Water Shortages

In the world’s most waterscarce 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 an MIT study. Increasing water scarcity not only poses a major threat to urban populations, but also presents a potentially significant barrier to economic development for many low- and middle-income economies, especially those that are dependent on agriculture for both domestic consumption and export revenue.

Economic Impact

With the amount of water consumed through farming expected to increase by around 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 about 77% of economic losses associated with climate change.

Food Security

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 approximately 34%.

Another underlying problem concerns crop yields and agricultural practices. Africa has one of the lowest crop yields in the world, as only 6% of cultivated land is irrigated, compared to 14% in Latin America and 37% in Asia. Of the irrigated land in Africa, more than two-thirds is concentrated in just five countries – Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, South Africa and Sudan – each of which has more than 1m ha of irrigated land. There is considerable opportunity to expand the amount of irrigated land, although lower-income countries often lack the capital to do so.

Irrigation Policies

Expanded irrigation is being regarded as 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, suggested that African countries have the potential to irrigate a further 47m ha of land to boost agricultural productivity and accelerate economic growth.

Among developing economies on the continent, the Moroccan government’s large-scale expansion of irrigation through infrastructure investment, training programmes, subsidies and tax exemptions has set the benchmark for other nations to follow. As of 2018 Morocco had equipped around 20% of its land for irrigation, one of the highest rates in Africa. This was achieved through well-planned policies that are part of a programme that began in 2008 called the Green Morocco Plan (Plan Maroc Vert, PMV), which aims to expand and modernise irrigation to save 1.4bn cu metres of water annually.

After initially securing strong institutional support across various government ministries for expanding irrigation, the PMV has seen significant investment in both large- and small-scale irrigation infrastructure. For example, the Moroccan government has invested in dams to store water during periods of abundant rainfall, which has also allowed for the transfer of surplus water to the south, where water scarcity is more critical. In addition, tax exemptions, subsidies and training programmes for farmers have encouraged the further adoption of irrigation equipment, as these incentives have increasingly focused on water-efficient techniques in recent years.

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. The PMV has also greatly benefitted the country’s agriculture sector. According to data provided by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, the sector’s contribution to GDP saw an average increase of 7.7% per year between 2008 and 2015, and agricultural exports rose by 65% between 2008 and 2018.

Elsewhere, in Kenya the government is also focusing on expanding its irrigation infrastructure through centralised planning and implementation of national water strategies. Currently, only around 150,570 ha, or 2.6%, of Kenya’s total 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 meet this goal, the Kenyan 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 charged with developing and improving irrigation infrastructure, providing irrigation services to private farming companies and smallholders, and offering technical advisory services during the irrigation technology rollout phase. In June 2019 the bill was subjected to a mediation process in the National Assembly, with the objective of crafting a version of the stalled legislation that both houses would be willing to pass.

Weathering Risks

Peru is also focusing on expanding irrigation schemes to keep pace with its growing agriculture sector and to better respond to extreme weather events. Agriculture is a major employment driver in the country, employing about 28% of the active workforce. According to the World Bank, the sector accounts for as much as 11.3% of GDP, and agriculture exports increased by 13% in 2018 to reach $7bn, according to data provided by the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation (Ministerio de Agricultura y Riego, MINAGRI).

Given the agriculture sector’s significance to economic activity, Peru’s susceptibility to extreme types of weather is of major concern. One particular example is the El Niño phenomenon, which has caused periodic flooding and extensive infrastructure damage in the past. Most recently, in 2017 El Niño flooding in coastal areas caused an estimated $12bn-15bn in damages and shaved almost a full percentage point off GDP. Only months before the rains hit, the government had been preparing for a drought in agricultural heartlands located in the drier southern and northern areas.

With the agriculture sector at risk from periodic weather extremes, the Peruvian government and private sector are directly mitigating the challenge through resilience-focused policies. In 2019 MINAGRI aims to increase the total area of irrigated land under its administration from 25,725 ha to 59,734 ha. Funding for irrigation projects across Peru makes up 54% of MINAGRI’s $835.6m budget for 2019, and efforts are currently focused on both the expansion and modernisation of existing infrastructure.

Peru also has great potential to roll out modern technology and expand its irrigated land by an additional 12m ha. “Peru has one of the largest fresh water reserves in the world, but most of it flows to the Atlantic. However, the government is actively investing in infrastructure to divert that water to the Pacific Coast,” Gabriel Amaro, executive director of the Association of Agricultural Producers Guild of Peru, told OBG. “Furthermore, modern fruit and vegetable growing techniques are only used on 4.4% of the current 4.2m ha of cultivated agricultural land in the country,” Amaro added.

Government projects like Chavimochic in the north-western region of La Libertad, which is expected to add 60,000 ha of irrigated land by the end of 2021, are converting previously arid areas into fertile farm lands by employing modern techniques such as drip irrigation.

Drip Technology

Regional governments are increasingly pursuing irrigation plans, especially given the rise of new technology. Drip irrigation technology, 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 is aiming to equip 700,000 ha – or 50% of total irrigated land in the country – with drip technology by 2022, up from 500,000 ha in 2018 and 163,000 ha in 2008. The technology that has been implemented thus far saves about 800m cu metres annually.

In Algeria, where water availability per capita is less than 300 cu metres per year – well below the 500 cu metres threshold defined by the UN as absolute water scarcity – areas irrigated by water-saving methods grew from 90,000 ha in 2000 to 600,000 ha in 2018, representing 50% of total irrigated land. This was facilitated by government investment of around $18bn towards improving water security in the 2015-19 period alone. By introducing new water-efficient technology across farmlands, the Algerian government’s medium-term goal to achieve a 20% decrease in current water consumption levels in the agriculture sector is becoming much more feasible, which would free up resources to irrigate a further 200,000 ha in the country.

Mexico is also on a nationwide water-saving drive focused on the rehabilitation and modernisation of irrigation systems across the country. In Guanajuato state, one of the country’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 been steadily increasing 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.

Other Innovations

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 contained 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%. It is already being used to irrigate trees such as olive, date palm, fig, citrus, pistachio, almond, peach and grape, as well as vegetables in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Qatar, the UAE, Greece, the US and France. In February 2019 Chahbani announced that 20,000 of its buried diffusers had been bought in Morocco and were to be piloted in agricultural projects across the country to help farmers deal with difficult drought conditions.

Switching 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 about 85% of Egypt’s water, and, when completed, GERD could see the country’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 officially established in 2003, told local media in October 2018.

Additionally, while it is a major export of the economy, rice consumes a significant portion of the Egyptian agriculture sector’s water allocation, and the crop is coming under government scrutiny. Facing concerns about a growing population and GERD’s potential impact on the country’s water resources, in 2018 Egypt’s Parliament voted to reduce the amount of land allocated for cultivating rice by more than half. While the move to greatly reduce rice cultivation is expected to save billions of cu metres of water, there have been concerns raised regarding its impact on local rice farmers and food prices in the country. Plans to increase rice imports from nations such as Gabon are set to fill this gap, and the Egyptian government is also actively promoting the cultivation of more water-efficient alternative crops, like quinoa, for export.

Similarly to Egypt’s, Thailand’s government has had to enact difficult and unpopular measures relating to rice cultivation in times of drought. Due to limited water resources in recent years, the Royal Irrigation Department banned off-season rice cultivation in late 2015 in order to prioritise water supplies for household consumption. While these restrictions have been unpopular with many farmers, the government has started offering alternative income sources. In October 2018 the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives unveiled a corn-growing promotion scheme, which offers loans, insurance and price guarantees to farmers who are willing to move away from off-season rice production. The government’s overall goal is to switch approximately 320,000 ha from rice to corn in 2019.


While the Myanmar government is not switching crops as in Thailand, farmers in the country are hoping that investment in irrigation systems will allow them to diversify their production base. Despite having comparable land utilisation and acreages to neighbouring countries like Vietnam and Thailand, Myanmar’s farmers produce much less than their regional counterparts do. One of the reasons behind these low production levels is the limited number of crops that farmers are able to grow, precisely because of poor irrigation systems. Rice and beans are the dominant crops, and enabling Myanmar farmers to grow a third major crop similar to that of other regional countries would be an important addition, as it presents a potentially huge opportunity in terms of revenue and annual net income growth for local farmers.

In 2014-15 about 3m ha of agricultural land in Myanmar was linked to public irrigation systems, which accounted for approximately 15% of the crop area. This figure is far lower than in Indonesia and Thailand (approximately 30% each), China (50%) and Vietnam (70%). According to Thadoe Hein, CEO of Myanmar agricultural technology company Awba, the private sector could play a significant role in facilitating the country’s irrigation expansion plans. “There is a big opportunity for foreign investors to bring drip irrigation and sprinklers systems into Myanmar,” he told OBG. “These systems cost around $2000 per acre and will present a significant change to farmers across the country.”

Alternative Sources

While water conservation efforts related to agricultural practices can go a long way to ensuring resilience, these efforts will likely not be enough for arid Gulf and North African countries where groundwater resources are fast running out. In these areas, governments are constructing costly and energy-intensive desalination plants to ensure water resilience, which presents sizable opportunities for private sector players. The Middle East and North Africa make up over 40% of global desalinated water output, and across the region ongoing desalination projects amount to more than $5.25bn, of which Saudi Arabia accounts for $1.52bn, followed by the UAE ($1.28bn), Oman ($501m), Egypt ($498m) and Morocco ($354m).

According to the “Global Water Desalination Market” report published in 2018 by business analytics and consulting firm Adroit Market Research, the global desalination market is likely to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 7.8% from 2018 to 2025, and the pipeline for future projects is strong. Saudi Arabia’s government is a big spender in this regard and has committed to investing $80bn in desalination plants by 2025 through public-private partnerships (PPPs) with local and foreign companies. In early 2019 the country announced several desalination projects located on the Red Sea coast, worth a total of more than $600m.

Climate change, rising populations and associated water constraints are challenges that require both policy changes and innovative private sector technological solutions. In addition to desalination plants, there are a number of opportunities for private sector involvement in global water resilience efforts in the Middle East, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. PPPs for irrigation expansion and modernisation initiatives are being offered across many developing countries, and the global drip irrigation market is forecast to be worth around $7bn by 2024. Further investment opportunities are expected to arise as more governments adopt so-called blue future water resilience-oriented strategies.

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