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Why agricultural research is vital to the world’s water future

By Frank Rijsberman - posted Tuesday, 12 February 2002

"We need a Blue Revolution in agriculture that focuses on increasing productivity per unit of water – "more crop per drop." Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations, Report to the Millennium Conference, October, 2000 in reference to the need to solve the world water crisis.

We can no longer afford to be complacent about how we manage water in agriculture. This is a priority that Australia knows all too well and one that is gaining recognition around the world — with the help of organizations such as the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR). The call for a Blue Revolution in agriculture was made again last August. This time as one of the UN’s ‘WEHAB’ targets of the World Summit Summit on Sustainable Development.

A recent report by our organization — the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) — with the International Food Policy Research Institute projects that by 2025, water scarcity will cause annual global losses of 350 million metric tons of food production — slightly more than the entire current U.S. grain crop. If current trends continue, the water crisis — which is already beginning to rear its head in many countries through depleted groundwater aquifers, dried-up wetlands and frequent water shortages — will indeed become a global problem.


Agriculture is the world’s largest water user — using 70 per cent of the world’s freshwater supplies. In many developing countries over 90 per cent of available fresh water goes to agriculture. The water and food challenge for the coming 20 years is to find ways of growing more food with less water — while improving rural livelihoods and protecting the environment.

Most people associate water savings with practices such as repairing leaky taps, using low-flush toilets and other household conservation measures. While these practices can have localized benefits, it is important to realize that domestic users actually consume very little of the world’s water. When you consider that, in developed countries, a person uses less than 150 litres of water per day — and compare this to the 3000 litres of water it takes to grow 1 kilogram of rice — you begin to understand why finding ways of growing more food with less water is vital to the world’s future.

Research that we have done over the past decade, in partnership with universities, government agencies and NGOs in some 50 Asian and African countries, shows that by improving the productivity of water on irrigated and rain-fed lands, we can have enough water for cities, industry and nature. But this requires substantial investment in crop research, technology, and infrastructure and a commitment to institutional and management reforms.

In China, where water users are already beginning to feel the bite of scarcity, research supported by the ACIAR is offering important lessons in decreasing the amount of water needed to grow rice — while still improving yields. The research, conducted by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), the International Rice Research Institute, IWMI and Wuhan University has shown how improving the productivity of water was made possible through on-farm water saving irrigation practices, ample water recycling, pricing water, and strong institutions. In the Zhang He Irrigation System, where the research took place, they were able to triple the amount of rice grown per unit of water. This has enabled water managers to shift water out of agriculture to meet growing municipal and industrial demands.

Is it really possible to grow more food with less water? We think yes. But agricultural research still has a long way to go if we are to provide governments, water managers and farmers the knowledge and tools they need to solve the water crisis. This is why the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) has launched a new approach to agricultural research — the Global Challenge Program on Water and Food. The program is a partnership between national and international research institutes, NGOs and river basin communities across the developing world. Australia’s CSIRO is a member of the 18-member consortium that directs the Challenge Program effort.

The Program’s goal is to identify and encourage practices and institutional strategies that improve the productivity of water. Its specific objective is to increase food production to achieve internationally adopted food security and poverty eradication targets by 2015. And to do this without increasing global diversions of water for agriculture above the levels of 2000.


In the end, it is not up to the research community to decide how people in various countries and river basins use their water. People living in and managing water in river basins and for developing countries will have different ways to meet their food and environmental security goals. But agricultural research and its development donors can make a significant difference to poverty reduction and access to water for all — by presenting the countries in need with sound science that presents realistic, feasible and sustainable choices and solutions that do not exist today.

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This article was first published in The Canberra Times on 29 November 2002.

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About the Author

Frank Rijsberman has been Director General of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), since 2000. He is also a professor at the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education in Delft and at Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands. Rijsberman earned his PhD in water resources planning and management from Colorado State University.

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