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Water for food, water for life: Water management in agriculture

Time (GMT +01) 12:00 13:30

David Molden, Editor and Coordinator, Comprehensive Assessment for Water Management in Agriculture, International Water Management Institute (IWMI)
Julie van der Bliek, Director, Global Research Division, International Water Management Institute (IWMI)

Alan Nicol
, Head, Water Policy Programme, ODI
Steve Wiggins, Research Fellow, Rural Policy and Governance Group, ODI


John Farrington, Research Fellow, ODI

David Molden

David Molden started by highlighting World Water Day, which was marked the week previously using the theme of ‘Water Scarcity’. This theme was very relevant to the book, which he edited.

Molden began by looking at how the world has used water to produce food for the world. He highlighted how, following major investments in irrigation systems in the 1970s, a massive increase in the area of the globe that is irrigated led to drops in the food price index. However, this also caused problems: the growth in irrigation affected biodiversity in freshwater species, as shown by the WWF Living Planet index. We also can see that some important limits for water have now been breached: in particular a third of the world’s population live in areas of physical or economic water scarcity (lack of water itself or the ability to purchase water respectively). As diet and population are the key drivers of water use – the worst case scenario sees food and feed demand doubling by 2050 because of changing diets and increasing populations – this will put more strain on these scarce water resources.

Molden continued by outlining the book and describing the rigorous editorial process that the book has gone through to be completed. This has led to an eight-point policy agenda, which he outlined as:

1. Change the way we think about water and food – developing systems that less heavily rely on rainfed water management or irrigation, but can take advantage of both.

2. Get water to poor people, use it better – broad investments for economic growth, investments targeted to the poor. In particular, this could mean increasing water rights, investments in pro-poor technologies, local management and informal irrigation, multiple use systems, maintaining fisheries and recognising gender differentiated roles and impacts.

3. Increase physical and economic water productivity – more crop per drop, more value per drop.

4. Upgrade rainfed agriculture – rainfed areas have the highest potential for poverty reduction and water productivity gains. This could be through technology and increased human capacity.

5. Adapt yesterday’s irrigation to tomorrow’s needs. There are reasons to invest, though the days of rapid expansion are over.

6. More ecosystem services from agriculture – improved practices, payment for environmental services, manage for diversity.

7. Reform the policy reform process – carry out institutional reform with solutions for local needs, consider effects of policies outside water sector.

8. Make difficult choices now, not later. This could include water storage for agriculture, considering upstream and downstream issues, or the impact of our consumption patterns.

Steve Wiggins

Steve Wiggins opened his comments by commending the book and its wide vision. He particularly agreed with the policy message which pointed towards local, adapted and small scale solutions to the issues outlined.

Wiggins raised three major questions around the book:

1. He thought that the economics had been underplayed. Water can be a public and private good, there are lots of externalities and issues with land rights – all of which means that making policies in this area can be tricky. Economics can help to provide policy options.

2. The book dismisses some solutions too easily. As an example, Wiggins discussed a scenario highlighted about using trade to even out water availability. This was dismissed, despite it being of interest in economics terms, because some governments would not like it. Dealing with the issues raised by the books will need courage to take difficult choices.

3. It was good to see that a major source of increases in food will be the savannahs, however this relies on persuading farmers to intensify production, which could be difficult.

Alan Nicol

Alan Nicol fed comments in remotely from Addis Ababa, where he is currently based. These were conveyed by John Farrington. An edited version of these will be posted here shortly.


In the discussion which followed, the following points and questions were raised:

- When looking at multiple usage of water, past battles between engineers and agriculturalists have always been lots by the latter. Agriculture still doesn’t have enough power in this area.

- Figures for areas that are salinised are being revised down, making this a less important issue than it would seem from many statistics.

- The role of the private sector is important, as many businesses depend on water. UK corporations are increasingly recognising their role in the market chain with regards to water usage.

- There needs to be a greater emphasis on water rights – it is dangerous to increase the productivity of water without addressing these.

- The UK and EU can help by considering the water impacts of diets and wastage. Also, the impact on water must be considered when looking at the growth in biofuel production. Finally, the UK has skills that could be employed in capacity building elsewhere.

- The political and historical reasons behind current yield levels, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, need to be considered more.

- 40% of income, on average, is spent on food. The proportion is even greater for the rural poor. The importance of agriculture and water in the livelihoods of the poor is huge and crises can lead to, among other things, water price volatility.


This event launched the book 'Water for Food, Water for Life - A Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture', and discussed the vital importance of water within agriculture.