Plummeting groundwater imperils farming in South, Central Asia

The UN’s State of Food and Agriculture report has identified these as areas of particular concern, and called for ‘immediate’ action.

farming in India
Farming activity in full swing in a forest segment in Kashmir, India. Image: Sandeep Pachetan, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Globally, 1.2 billion people live in areas where agriculture is severely constrained by water shortages and scarcity – about one in six people. Nearly half of them live in South Asia, a major United Nations report has said.

In South Asia, around 520 million people live in areas of high water scarcity; in East and Southeast Asia the number is about 460 million. In Central Asia, North Africa and West Asia, about one-fifth of the population live in agricultural areas with very high water shortages or scarcity.

In 1993, the last time the report focused on water, it identified countries in “North Africa, the Near East and sub-Saharan Africa” as those facing chronic water scarcity problems.

The State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA) is one of the flagship publications produced by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. This year, the report focused on how water shortages and scarcity are affecting agriculture and food production, highlighting that “persistent and severe droughts, exacerbated by climate change, are causing increasingly serious water shortages in rainfed agriculture.”

If you take into consideration people who are borderline severely water-constrained, that number increases to three billion people in just agricultural areas – who could tip over to being water constrained.

Andrea Cattaneo, senior economist, Food Security and Climate Change (FAO)

The report differentiates between water scarcity (the imbalance between supply and demand for freshwater resources) and water shortages (reflected in drought frequency inadequate rainfall patterns). Globally, available freshwater per person has declined by more than 20 per cent over the past 20 years.

“The urgency that comes out of the report is really the take-home message,” said Andrea Cattaneo, senior economist and editor of the report, speaking at the webcast launch.

“We’ve known for a long time that water is a challenge,” Cattaneo added, “but what surprised us if you take into consideration people who are borderline severely water-constrained, that number increases to three billion people in just agricultural areas – who could tip over to being water constrained… This is a longstanding problem, but with acceleration, with climate change being already with us looking at these three billion people who are at risk really gives us a sense of urgency.”

The need for bold and immediate action on water shortages and scarcity in agriculture is stressed throughout the report and was repeated by speakers during the webcast.

Maximo Torero Cullen, chief economist of the FAO, said that as things stand, meeting the UN’s sustainable development goals by 2030 will be a “challenge” without action to combat water scarcity.

Central Asia of particular concern

The report highlights Central Asia, stating that the region faces “recurring agricultural drought on more than half of its low-input rainfed cropland, and almost all of its irrigated areas are under high or very high water stress”.

The authors found that Central Asia has the highest levels of total water withdrawals per capita, reaching almost 2,000 cubic metres per person in 2017. In comparison, this was less than 130 cubic metres in sub-Saharan Africa.

Cattaneo said, “Central Asia is particularly challenging because 90 per cent of the irrigated component of agriculture is already under high or very high water stress. What I think compounds the challenge is that about 60 per cent of low-input rainfed agriculture is also severely affected by recurrent droughts.

Where in other regions you might be able to balance the challenges in irrigation with improving water harvesting and conservation in rainfed areas, here you really have to act on both the irrigated and rainfed sides… It’s an area that should be a priority.”

The report stresses that increasing scarcity will lead to competition for and conflict over water, citing political tensions in the Syr Darya water basin in Central Asia to illustrate how this can happen.

Agriculture’s water footprint

The report focuses on the need for agriculture to adapt as climate change amplifies existing inequities.

Agriculture is the world’s largest user of freshwater, with irrigated agriculture accounting for more than 70 per cent of global water withdrawals, said Torero Cullen. He added that one billion hectares of agricultural land face severe water constraint.

Furthermore, he said, 41 per cent of withdrawals are not compatible with sustaining ecosystem services.

As populations increase and diets change, agriculture’s demand for water is growing.

“In Asia,” the report says, “declining large-scale state-funded surface irrigation has led to farmers tapping directly into groundwater, placing excessive pressure on the resource.”

Countries in South Asia irrigate and use modern methods on about half of the region’s cropland; most irrigated areas are highly water stressed. The authors emphasise that small-scale farmers and rural populations without access to modern methods of irrigation will be most at risk of scarcity in the coming years.

Meet the challenge with management

As rainfall patterns change and the effects of climate change are felt, pressures on agriculture will increase. Poor, rural populations are most at risk. The report stresses the fundamental need to tackle climate change to prevent further deterioration.

Ismahane Elouafi, chief scientist at the FAO, gave a practical example of what this means. Warmer temperatures mean more water is needed to grow crops such as rice, she said, with farmers in the developing world at the mercy of the weather. Technologies in small-scale irrigation are therefore needed.

“There is a perception of growing scarcity but the real challenge is management,” said David Zilberman, professor of agricultural and resource economics at University of California, Berkeley, speaking at the launch. He pointed out there are many ways to address these challenges.

The depletion of freshwater resources underscores the “importance of producing more with less, especially in the agriculture sector,” the report stresses.

To meet these challenges, the report identifies three areas for action:

  1. Use technology and water management to ensure more productive use of water in agriculture (rainfed and irrigated)
  2. Set up institutions and legal frameworks that safeguard ecological flows to maintain ecosystem function
  3. Create an overall policy environment to promote the sustainable and equitable management of water

A holistic approach is also needed. Torero Cullen pointed out that policies often result in unexpected trade-offs. For example, using solar panels to irrigate crops makes use of sustainable energy, but means unsustainable extraction of groundwater can continue. The water sector can be affected by policies in apparently unconnected domains, such as trade, energy, agricultural subsidies and poverty reduction, but these impacts are often not considered.

This story was published with permission from The Third Pole.


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