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Irrigation in EU agriculture [Policy podcast]

Written by Rachele Rossi,

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Irrigation is the provision of water to help crops grow when rainfall is not sufficient. While new farming methods and technologies allow some types of crops to be grown without soil, a certain amount of water is needed to grow any kind of crop. In today’s economy, agriculture is one of the sectors that consumes the most water resources. Irrigation is the major cause of water consumption in agriculture. It contributes to increasing crop productivity, but it is also a threat to the preservation of water resources. Therefore, the issue of water scarcity requires careful reflection on the trade-off between higher agricultural productivity and the deterioration of water resources.

A number of elements determine the amount of irrigation water used in agriculture, from the types of crop and cropping method to the characteristics of the soil and the irrigation technique, to name just a few. Therefore, agriculture itself provides opportunities for better water management and water savings, through both traditional farm practices and new farming technologies.

Irrigation has been a feature of European agriculture for thousands of years. Not surprisingly, the majority of irrigated agricultural areas are in the EU’s southern regions, in particular in Spain and Italy. However, there are areas equipped for irrigation elsewhere, especially in the Netherlands. Over 40 % of the EU’s water use is on agriculture, and most of the freshwater abstraction is for agricultural use in countries like Greece, Spain, and Cyprus.

Prolonged periods of drought in many parts of the Union, the effects of climate change and pollution, as well as competition over use add further pressure on EU waters. Ensuring food security in view of climate change requires improvement in water-management capacity, including making users (farmers) more responsible. In recent times, the environmental performance of sectoral policies, such as in the area of agriculture, is increasingly scrutinised by citizens, stakeholders, and policy-makers. Various EU policy initiatives have been launched to address the challenge of sustainable water use in agriculture, including a more integrated approach to water management, water re-use, research and innovation, and more environmental ambition in the agricultural policy. Better policy coordination between EU policies and actions is seen as key to achieving the sustainable safeguarding of EU waters.

Volume of water used for irrigation in the EU in 2010 (% of total cubic metres)

Read the complete briefing on ‘Irrigation in EU agriculture‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

Listen to policy podcast ‘Irrigation in EU agriculture’ on YouTube.

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