Members' Research Service By / May 28, 2015

Water for agriculture

Written by Ana Martinez Juan Water is crucial for life on earth and a determining production factor in agriculture. It…

@ vagabondo / Fotolia
Written by Ana Martinez Juan
Water is crucial for life on earth and a determining production factor in agriculture. It is also one of the public goods associated with agriculture. Water must be managed effectively and sustainably; this will make it possible to preserve ecosystems and to ensure sufficient quality and quantity for human needs.

Water used in agriculture

@ vagabondo / Fotolia
Water used in agriculture accounts for 70 % of total withdrawal in the world, and this percentage is higher in the arid and semi-arid areas of some developing countries. The prevalence of irrigated and rainfed agriculture varies by regions, mostly following climate patterns. In irrigated agriculture water is extracted from river basins, lakes and aquifers, also called blue water ; green water refers to the volume of rainwater consumed, mainly in crop production. The amount of water used for irrigation depends on factors such as climate, soil characteristics, water quality, agricultural systems, crop type and irrigation technology. In many regions of Europe, agriculture is highly dependent on irrigation and agriculture accounts for 33% of total water use , and this percentage can reach up to 80% in regions of Southern Europe. Water use for irrigation is essential to increase production in areas with water shortages or during dry periods. However, irrigation could increase soil erosion and salinity, pollution by nitrates, nutrient loss and excessive depletion of groundwater.

Water and food

In the near future, an increased demand of food and feed is expected in the world due to two main factors: population growth (FAO estimates that the world’s growing population will require about 50 percent more food by 2030 compared to 1998) and dietary change (economic growth and individual wealth will result in significant changes to dietary patterns in developing countries, shifting diets from cereals-based to meat and dairy-based diets which need more water). This increased demand will lead to a greater demand for water to produce more food and feed, and this in a context of climate change which will require adaptation strategies for better use and conservation of water resources. How to feed all people has many facets : we can focus on the production (to ensure availability of water in sufficient quantity and of adequate quality), on the demand (whether good demand management can increase water and energy efficiency, including getting ” more crop per drop “) or on the food supply chain (“from farm to fork”). Regarding this last point, there is a growing awareness of the need to use water efficiently in all aspects of the food supply chain : crop production, livestock, post-harvest management and reduction of food losses and food waste (by reducing food losses and food waste will we reduce water waste as food needs water to be produced).

Water and the Common Agricultural Policy

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) 2014-2020 addresses water in one of its three main objectives: sustainable management of natural resources and climate action (the other two are viable food production and balanced territorial development).  In addition, one of the six priorities of rural development is promoting resource efficiency and supporting the shift toward a low-carbon and climate-resilient economy in the agriculture, food and forestry sectors, with a focus on several areas such as increasing efficiency in water use by agriculture. The CAP 2014-2020 supports investments to conserve water, improve irrigation infrastructures and enable farmers to improve irrigation techniques. It also helps to protect water quality. Concerning direct payments, the greening component is linked with using sustainable agricultural methods and requires crop diversification, ecological focus areas and maintaining permanent grasslands. The European Innovation Partnership “Agricultural Productivity and Sustainability” has established a focus group on Water & agriculture: adaptive strategies at farm level . Its main objective is to intensify networking between science and farming systems in order to develop strategies to deal with water scarcity. Beyond the CAP, water is also targeted with the resource-efficient Europe flagship initiative under the Europe 2020 strategy. This initiative provides a long-term framework for actions in many policy areas such as climate change, energy, raw materials, agriculture, fisheries or biodiversity. Regarding water, the initiative establishes a water action “that makes water saving measures and increasing water efficiency a priority, in order to ensure that water is available in sufficient quantities, is of appropriate quality, is used sustainably and with minimum resource input, and is ultimately returned to the environment with acceptable quality”. This keysource provides sources discussing several issues related to water and agriculture.


Water for a sustainable world / United Nations, World Water Development Report, 2015. 139 p. This report demonstrates how water resources and services are essential to achieving global sustainability. Chapter 7 highlights the implications for food and agriculture (pages 48-52). Integrated water resources management in the 21st century: revisiting the paradigm / Pedro Martinez-Santos, Maite M. Aldaya and M. Ramón Llamas (eds.). CRC Press and Fundación Botín, 2014. 313 p. This book shows how water management is subject to an increasing number of variables that have made water policy a global issue. Variables such as soil storage or virtual water flows or the role of food trade on water use patterns, which presents strong implications for the conventional notion of food security. Towards efficient use of water resources in Europe / European Environment Agency, 2012. 74 p. This report makes the case for an integrated water management, starting with better implementation of existing legislation. In agriculture, for example, shifts to water-efficient irrigation techniques such as drip irrigation, altered crop patterns and wastewater reuse are particularly promising. The state of the world’s land and water resources for food and agriculture: managing systems at risk / FAO, Earthscan, 2011. 308 p. This book deals primarily with the issue of land and water for crops. It examines the kinds of production responses needed to meet demand. It also assesses the potential of the world’s land and water resources to support these desired increases in output and productivity. Risks and tradeo ffs are examined, and options reviewed for managing these without harm to the resource base.

Water management in agriculture

Integration of EU water policy objectives with the CAP: a partial success / European Court of Auditors, special report n° 4/2014, 2014. This report reveals that the EU has been only partially successful in integrating water policy goals into the common agricultural policy (CAP). This was due to a mismatch between the ambition of the policy objectives and the instruments used to effect change. The audit highlighted weaknesses in the two instruments currently used to integrate water concerns into the CAP (namely cross-compliance and rural development) and pointed out delays and weaknesses in the implementation of the Water Framework Directive. Sustainable management of natural resources with a focus on water and agriculture: study: final report / Jana Poláková… (et al.). Science and Technology Options Assessment, May 2013. Executive summaryAnnexes to the final reportOptions brief . This study has focussed on research, technologies and options for sustainable water use and water efficiency; agricultural land management with soil and water benefits; and measures within the Common Agricultural Policy to address sustainable management of water and soil resources. Six key areas for improvement have been identified: (1) The legislative framework currently in place to protect Europe’s waters; (2) Water priorities need to be more integrated and implemented within the sectoral policies at EU, national and regional levels; (3) Water losses should be reduced and water savings and efficiency should be increased; (4) Land and soil management are critical for long-term sustainability of farming and healthy ecosystems; (5) EU funds allocated to water priorities should be used in an efficient and effective way; and (6) improved data and decision support tools relating to water and soils. Water saving potential in agriculture in Europe: findings from the existing studies and application to case studies / Bio Intelligence Service, 2012. 234 p. This study provides information on the current situation in EU river basins as regards water abstracted, consumed and used for agriculture, and compiles conclusions from available studies to identify how water can be saved in agriculture, but also alternative solutions such as water reuse, storage or harvesting. Water quality and agriculture: meeting the policy challenge / OECD Studies on Water, OECD, 2012. This book examines linking policies, farm management and water quality. It looks at recent trends and prospects for water pollution from agriculture and the implications of climate change. It assesses the costs and benefits of agriculture’s impact on water systems, and presents a series of case studies. Finally the report provides a set of recommendations for countries for meeting the challenge of improving agricultural water quality. Water for agriculture and the environment: the ultimate trade-off / Henry Vaux Jr. Water Policy 14, 2012. 11 p. Global population is projected to increase over year 2000 levels by 30% in 2025 and by 50% in 2050. Producing sufficient food to feed more people will be a challenge requiring additional developed water supplies.Two options open to all countries are improving the productivity of water in agriculture and importing virtual water in food. All these measures reallocate water to agricultural uses from environmental uses. Sustainable management of water resources in agriculture / OECD Studies on Water, 2010. 122 p. This report is also available in French . This report calls on policy makers to recognise the complexity and diversity of water resource management in agriculture and the wide range of issues at stake. And it gives them the tools to do so, offering a wealth of information on recent trends and the outlook for water resource use in agriculture, including the impacts of climate change.

Water, agriculture and climate change

Climate change, water and agriculture: towards resilient systems / OECD Studies on Water, 2014. This report reviews the main linkages between climate change, water and agriculture as a means to identifying and discussing adaptation strategies for better use and conservation of water resources. It aims to provide guidance to decision makers on choosing an appropriate mix of policies and market approaches to address the interaction between agriculture and water systems under climate change. Climate Change, water and food security / Hugh Turral. FAO, 2011. 200 p. This report summarizes current knowledge of the anticipated impacts of climate change on water availability for agriculture and examines the implications for local and national food security. It is hoped that policy makers and planners can use this report to frame their adaptation responses when considering both the water variable in agriculture and the competing demands from other users. Water and agriculture under a changing climate / COPA-COGECA, 2009. 4 p. Climate change will have a significant impact on agriculture in terms of water quantity and quality. As an integral part of the climate system, the hydrological cycle can be positively influenced by using adapted agricultural practices. Solutions allowing greater production using less water are a critical future priority. If European agriculture is to continue to deliver social, environmental and economic benefits, access to adequate water supplies is essential.

Water and food security

Towards a water and food secure future: critical perspectives for policy-makers / FAO, World Water Council, 2015, 61 p. The report says food and nutritional insecurity will remain a problem in many regions in the future, although food production will be sufficient. Water management will be of paramount importance to increase efficiency, reduce water scarcity and monitor climate change and water quality. World Water Week in Stockholm 2012: water and food security: overarching conclusions / Stockholm International Water Institute, 2012. 32 p. This paper compiles the conclusions of the World Water Week. The key findings are: water and food security are inseparable, producing more with less, investing big in small-holders, fixing the leaks in the food supply chain, improving early warning and responding to a more turbulent climate, safeguarding ecosystems while expanding agriculture and promoting fair and effective food trade. Feeding a thirsty world: challenges and opportunities for a water and food secure future / Stockholm International Water Institute, 2012. 52 p. This report has been prepared as input to the 2012 World Water Week and its special focus on water and food security. Re-thinking water and food security: Fourth Botín Foundation Water Workshop / editors Luis Martínez-Cortina, Alberto Garrido and Elena López-Gunn. CRC Press, Fundación Botín, 2010. 398 p. This book provides an overview on key issues in global water and food security: global trade and virtual water trade providing some specific examples on the application of the water footprint at different scales; global sustainable production and consumption and the role of the silent groundwater revolution to help address water and food security, the water-energy nexus, and the potential for generating “new” water. Coping with water scarcity: an action framework for agriculture and food security / FAO, 2010. 100 p. The report aims to provide a conceptual framework to address food security under conditions of water scarcity in agriculture. The document offers views on the conceptual framework on which FAO’s water scarcity programme should be based, proposes a set of definitions associated with the concept of water scarcity, and indicates the main principles on which FAO should base its action in support to its member countries.

Agricultural water pricing

A water pricing scheme is basically a system in which a water (use) right is charged in monetary terms. The role of water pricing and water allocation in agriculture in delivering sustainable water use in Europe / Arcadis, Directorate-General for Environment of the European Commission, 2012, 152 p. This report shows that, the right to abstract or use water is initially issued by a public authority through the granting of authorisations, licenses or permits. Water allocation to individual farmers and/or plots is carried out by different actors at different administrative levels. Time periods or duration of permits or authorisations can differ significantly between Member States. In times of water scarcity or droughts, the practice to restrict water use is included in all of the water allocation policies found in the case study areas. Agricultural water pricing: EU and Mexico / Alberto Garrido and Javier Calatrava. OECD, 2010. 47 p. The key objective of the study is to provide an empirical study of agricultural water pricing (for irrigation) across five European Union (France, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain) countries where irrigation is important and Mexico, examining agricultural water price ranges and characteristics. Agricultural water pricing: Australia / Seamus Parker and Robert Speed. OECD, 2010. 27 p. This paper is a study of agricultural (irrigation) water pricing in Australia. It examines agricultural water price ranges and characteristics. Agricultural water pricing: Turkey / Erol H. Cakmak. OECD, 2010. 28 p. This paper analyses the price of the irrigation water in Turkey which is based on operation and maintenance costs. Agricultural water pricing: United States / Dennis Wichelns. OECD, 2010. 27 p. Prices and costs pertaining to irrigation water in the United States vary substantially with geographic location, water sources, and institutional arrangements. There is notable variation also in irrigation strategies, and in water supplies and demands, in eastern and western regions of the United States.

Sustainable intensification of agriculture

Sustainable intensification “means simultaneously improving the productivity and environmental management of agricultural land. The prime goals are a resource efficient agriculture with significantly higher environmental performance”. Managing water and fertilizer for sustainable agricultural intensification / Pay Drechsel (ed.). International Fertilizer Industry Association, 2015. 270 p. This is a reference guide to improve general understanding of the best management practices for the use of water and fertilizers throughout the world to enhance crop production, improve farm profitability and resource efficiency, and reduce environmental impacts related to crop production. The sustainable intensification of European Agriculture / Allan Buckwell (dir.). Rural Investment Support for Europe Foundation, 2014. 98 p. This report analyses the concept of sustainable intensification in Europe. The concept has come to the fore in recent years as a response to the challenges confronting global food security. These challenges are principally continuing population and economic grow thin the face of scarcities of agricultural land and water and the dangers posed by climate change, agricultural pollution and biodiversity loss.


Multiple uses of water services in large irrigation systems: auditing and planning modernization: the MASSMUS approach / FAO, 2013. 227 p. This publication expresses the rationale for multiple use of water services for large irrigation systems and demonstrates how managers can optimize, rather than simply tolerate, multiple uses. It also illustrates how consideration and appropriate management of multiple uses can benefit an irrigation system by improving performance and enhancing sustainability. Irrigation water governance / Enorasis consortium, 2012. 31 p. This paper analyses the irrigation sector in several Member States. The paper concludes that this sector is very diverse. Various support measures in the CAP 2007-2013 support investments in irrigation infrastructure and systems, but also the establishment of small enterprises and producer organizations, which could either provide or cooperatively support irrigation support services. Financing water management and infrastructure related to agriculture across OECD Countries / Frank A. Ward. OECD, 2010. 34 p. This report examines the economics of irrigation projects. It identifies economic principles governing infrastructure investments for irrigated agriculture and factors leading to increased demand for investment in irrigation infrastructure. Water requirements for irrigation in the European Union: a model based assessment of irrigation water requirements and regional water demands in Europe / Gunter Wriedt (et al.). Joint Research Centre, Institute for Environment and Sustainability, 2008. 70 p. This report presents a modelling approach to estimate irrigation water requirements and regional irrigation water demands in the EU at high spatial resolution.

Virtual water in agriculture

The virtual-water content of a product is the freshwater ‘embodied’ in the product, not in real sense, but in virtual sense. It refers to the volume of water consumed or polluted for producing the product, measured over its full production chain. If a nation exports or imports such a product, it exports or imports water in virtual form. An assessment of the virtual water balance for agricultural products in EU river basins / Davy Vanham. Water Resources and Industry 1–2, 2013. 11 p. In this paper the net virtual water import of agricultural products in river basins (surface area larger than 1000 km 2 ) located in the EU28 is assessed. The net virtual water is defined as the difference between the water footprint of consumption and the water footprint of production for agricultural products. Virtual water: concepts and implications / Gabriela Parada – Puig. Scielo, 2012. 8 p. Article in Spanish, abstract in English, Spanish and Portuguese. The main objective of this article is to present a review of the concepts concerning virtual water and water foot print as these are innovative indicators for quantifying human appropriation of water resources. An economic analysis of the virtual water concept in relation to the agri-food sector / Dennis Wichelns. OECD, 2010. 29 p. The term “virtual water” began appearing in the water resources literature in the mid-1990s. Several authors have conducted empirical analyses of “virtual water flows” between countries, by comparing the water requirements of crops and livestock products involved in international trade. Recent empirical analyses of international trade data generally confirm the lack of consistency between virtual water prescriptions and actual trade patterns.

Water and ethics

The role of ethics in water and food security: balancing utilitarian and intangible values / Elena Lopez-Gunn, Lucia De Stefano and M. Ramón Llamas. Water Policy 14, 2012. 17 p. This paper argues that solving water and food problems is not only a technical challenge but also a problem of fundamental ethical values and political will. Trade has the potential to help countries manage water security in a globalized world, provided that global trade is revisited and undergoes a process of deep reform in the light of ethical considerations. Water ethics: Marcelino Botín Water Forum 2007 / editors M. Ramón Llamas, Luis Martínez-Cortina and Aditi Mukherji. CRC Press, Fundación Botín, 2009. 380 p. This book deals with the role of ethics, and the potential values that could frame global water policy. Experts from different cultural, geographic and religious backgrounds met to discuss a range of ethical perspectives and positions in order to enhance the debate on how ethical considerations can play a more significant and explicit role in water development and management.

Member States


L’irrigation en France: état des lieux, enjeux et perspectives /Dominique Rollin et Sami Bouarfa. Sciences eaux & territoires, nº 11, 2013. En France les usages de l’eau sont de plus en plus nombreux et souvent concurrents. Dans ce contexte, l’irrigation agricole suscite de multiples tensions sur le plan territorial, car cet usage de l’eau pour l’agriculture implique des prélèvements importants de la ressource dans des périodes où celles-ci peuvent être limitées. La gestion quantitative de l’eau en agriculture: une nouvelle vision, pour un meilleur partage / Philippe Martin. La documentation française, 2013. 87 p. Une gestion équilibrée de la ressource en eau suppose de conjuguer la protection des milieux, les usages économiques et un partage équitable de l’eau dans un contexte de changement climatique. S’adapter à ce changement est désormais un enjeu partagé, comme est admise la nécessité de faire évoluer les modes de production agricole.


Water Conservation on Irish Farms / National Rural Network, 2013. 10 p. This case study undertaken on behalf of the National Rural Network documents the actions undertaken on three farms to address water efficiency, presents the lessons from these farms and makes suggestions for how farmers could be encouraged to improve the water efficiency on Irish farms.


A Model-based irrigation water consumption estimation at farm level / Flavio Lupia. Istituto Nationale di Economia Agraria (INEA), 2013. 178 P. The aim of the project was to design a methodology for estimating, by implementing a computational model, the irrigation water consumption at farm level in Italy by using, as a key source of information, the 6th General Agricultural Census 2010.


Adapting Dutch agriculture to climate change / J. J. Stoorvogel. Wageningen, 2013. 30 p. This papers starts with a brief discussion on agricultural land use in the Netherlands, followed by an overview of the expected climatic changes in the Netherlands and the consequences of land use change on current agricultural practices. Subsequently, adaptation strategies as suggested in the literature are summarized and discussed.


O uso da água na agricultura / Instituto Nacional de Estatística, 2011. 95 p. This report brings together the papers presented at the seminar “The use of water by agriculture” in the context of the completion of the Census of Agriculture 2009 in Portugal.


Water, agriculture and the environment in Spain: can we square the circle? / Lucia de Stefano and M. Ramón Llamas (eds.). CRC Press and Fundación Botín, 2012. 339 p. The metrification of water uses and their monetary value is a first important step in understanding how reallocation of water among uses could help mitigating many of the current water problems in Spain. The book explores the growing need for maintaining Spain’s natural capital and the human component of water governance that often determine the result of decisions and, sometimes, lead water management to a deadlock. Uso del agua de riego en los cultivos de invernadero / M.D. Fernández (et al.). Cajamar, Cuadernos de Estudios Agroalimentarios, 2012. 24 p. In the Mediterranean Basin there is a large area of simple plastic greenhouses. The recent rapid expansion of the greenhouse area has enabled substantial economic development of previously poor regions, and a more efficient use of resources such as land and water, the latter being a scarce resource in this region.


Agriculture’s impacts on water quality / Joseph Holden (et al.). Global Food Security programme(GFS) and UK’s Water Research Innovation Partnership (UKWRIP), 2015. 24 p. This report considers whether it is possible to balance high aspirations for environmental water quality, with significant growth in agricultural production to meet food security objectives and provide viable livelihoods for farmers. Agriculture’s impacts on water availability / Glenn Watts (et al.). Global Food Security programme(GFS) and UK’s Water Research Innovation Partnership (UKWRIP), 2015. 24 p. The pressure on the UK water supply is increasing, mainly due to an expanding population, particularly in the south-east of England and to climate change.The UK is generally perceived to be wet; however water availability varies across the UK, and over time -in some places and at some times, water availability is heavily constrained. Water usage in agriculture and horticulture: results from the Farm Business Survey 2009-10 and the Irrigation Survey 2010 / Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 2011. 46 p. This statistics were released on 9June 2011 according to the arrangements approved by the UK Statistics Authority. These are sourced from the 2009-10 Farm Business Survey (which covers the 2009 harvest) and the 2010 Irrigation Survey. The results cover volumes and costs of water, irrigated areas of crops, management practices undertaken and the reasons for doing these.

Developing countries


Water-smart agriculture in East Africa / editors Alan Nicol (et al.). Global Water Initiative East Africa, 2015. 356. This sourcebook is aimed at a distinct group of users: development managers, educators, local administrators and policy makers. It is important to note that this sourcebook is not meant as a definitive collection, but rather a starting point for thinking and inspiring future efforts. Rapid assessment of water availability and appropriate technologies for small-scale farming: guidelines for practitioners /Andrew Keller, Elizabeth WeightandStuart Taylor. International Water Management Institute, 2013. 65 p. This paper is also available in French . This paper is intended to provide guidance on the expertise, resources and information needed for managers to direct technical specialists. The guidelines also present an approach to estimate the quantity of water resources available, and selectindividual water-lifting and irrigation application technologies that are suited to available water resources.

Asia and Oceania

Environmental livelihood security in Southeast Asia and Oceania: a water-energy-food-livelihoods nexus approach for spatially assessing change: white paper / Eloise M. Biggs.International Water Management Institute, 2014. 114 p. This document addresses the need for explicit inclusion of livelihoods within the environment nexus (water-energy-food security). The authors present the first conceptualization of “environmental livelihood security”, which combines the nexus perspective with sustainable livelihoods. The authors provide a primer for using geospatial information to develop a spatial framework to enable geographical assessment of environmental livelihood security across the region.

Latin America and the Caribbean

Water for food security and well-being in Latin America and the Caribbean: social and environmental implications for a globalized economy / Bárbara A. Willaarts, Alberto Garrido and M. Ramón Llamas (eds.). Fundación Botín and Routledge, 2014. Volume 1 (introduction, setting the scene and water for food and non-food; 280 p.) and volume 2 (economic, legal and institutional factors for achieving water and food security; 174 p.). This book provides an analytical and facts-based overview on the trends in water resources management in Latin America and the Caribbean region over the last decade, its contribution to regional development and human well-being, with special emphasis on the role of water for food security, and the challenges ahead. Seguridad hídrica y alimentaria en América Latina y el Caribe: implicaciones regionales y globales / Bárbara A. Willaarts (ed.) (et al.). Fundación Botín, 2014. 34 p. This paper summarizes the main contributions and the practical conclusions of the book Water for food security and well-being in Latin America and the Caribbean: social and environmental implications for a globalized economy.

Programmes and projects

The CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF) was a comprehensive, global research program that ran from 2002 to 2013. CPWF’s mandate was two-fold: carry out research on innovative solutions for improving food production through better water management and test new approaches for conducting research-for-development. In 2011, CPWF officially merged with the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE). WLE combines the resources of fourteen CGIAR centers and numerous external partners to provide an integrated approach to natural resource management research. It builds on the research results, emerging outcomes, partnerships and approach of CPWF. This program is led by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). Efficient Irrigation Management Tools for Agricultural Cultivations and Urban Landscapes (IRMA). The general objective of IRMA is to establish a network of knowledge and expertise exchange which will lead to the development of practical irrigation management tools for demand-driven capitalization of scientific knowledge and good practices. IRMA will be carried out by SME’s support organisations, regional authorities, universities and research institutes from Italy and Greece. Enorasis (January 2012-December 2014, FP7-ENV Project). The core aim of this project was to develop an integrated Decision Support System for environmentally optimized irrigation management by farmers and water management organizations based on advanced technologies and models.

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