March 22, 2015
By Dr. Roberto Lenton, Executive Director of the Daugherty Water for Food Institute at the University of Nebraska,
and Dr. Margaret M. Zeigler, Executive Director of the Global Harvest Initiative
Water is arguably our most precious natural resource, and particularly vulnerable to the impact of climate change, as well as to the increasing demand for food as our global population grows to 9.6 billion by 2050. Economies and incomes are growing, fueling a revolution in global agriculture that will likely result in nearly a doubling of demand for food, feed, fiber and fuel in the next 35 years.
Currently 70 percent of extracted freshwater worldwide is used for agriculture production. In the absence of progress, water use for agriculture is estimated to grow to 89 percent by 2050, which is clearly untenable given other critical water demands. We must take action to improve how we use, conserve and manage our water supply so that future generations have the opportunity to access sufficient and sustainable sources of food and agriculture products.
Two cases illustrate how we can pave a more sustainable pathway for the future.
In the United States, agriculture has benefitted from the massive High Plains Aquifer, which stores 1,975 million acre-feet (almost 2,500 cubic kilometers) of groundwater in Nebraska alone. In this state, many farmers and ranchers are succeeding from an early and aggressive approach to managing this critical groundwater source. Forty years ago, Nebraska established natural resource districts, unique in the nation, to help protect its natural resources, including water in particular. In addition, research and adoption of agricultural technology, advanced crop genetics and varieties, and conservation practices have combined to preserve much of the High Plains Aquifer throughout Nebraska, maintaining nearly its entire historic water levels, despite drops in some areas. Farmers are actively engaged in water management improvement approaches, with some 1,200 farmers representing 1.7 million acres participating in the Nebraska Agricultural Water Management Network.
In India, low-productivity irrigation and inconsistent water management practices are major threats to meeting India’s growing agricultural and household needs. Total demand for water is expected to grow by 63 percent from 2010 to 2050. In the 1960s and 1970s, irrigation and improved farming technologies were instrumental in India’s agricultural productivity growth and achievement of food self-sufficiency. Now, over-extraction of groundwater and inappropriate practices are posing a major challenge.
But new approaches to ground and surface water management are being implemented across India, as the country shifts to better water management approaches. The work of Rajendra Singh of India, who was named the 2015 Stockholm Water Prize Laureate on Friday for his innovative water restoration efforts, is a great example of these new approaches. Focusing on the harvesting of rain and groundwater recharge through the construction of traditional earthen dams and other structures to collect water, he and his organization have returned water to a thousand villages across the state of Rajasthan. Another example is the Ministry of Water Resources “Command Area Development and Water Management” Program, which provides incentives for better water management rather than building new irrigation projects. This signals a major change in direction for India’s water policy and will help improve water productivity for India’s future.
Innovations such as these in Nebraska and India play a significant role in conserving natural resources – particularly water – while allowing farmers to increase their output to meet the demands of a growing world. For more detailed information on water for food and agriculture strategies, visit the Water for Food Institute website. For more information on enhancing agricultural productivity and to access the Global Agricultural Productivity (GAP) Reports®, visit the Global Harvest Initiative website.
 UN World Water Assessment Programme. (2014) The United Nations World Water Development Report 2014: Water and Energy. UNESCO. Paris, France.
 Global Water Partnership. (2013). Water and Food Security—Experiences in India and China. Stockholm, Sweden.
Tags: education, Global, innovation, sustainability