"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
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
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
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