Water Scarcity | 6 Ways To Reduce Water Consumption in Agriculture

Agriculture and food production account for around 70% of freshwater extraction. In increasingly uncertain climates and with a steadily growing population, the predicted rise of water scarcity will have global effects on food production. Here are a few agricultural innovations that seek to minimise agricultural water waste.

What Is Water Scarcity?

Water scarcity is defined as the reduced availability of water due to physical shortage (for example, a drought), a lack of adequate infrastructure (such as channels and wells), or the failure of institutions to ensure a regular water supply. In other words, water scarcity occurs when there are insufficient water resources to satisfy the long-term average needs in a region. 

Who Does Water Scarcity Impact?

Today, water scarcity affects almost every continent: around 4 billion people live under conditions of severe water scarcity for at least one month of the year - nearly half of which live in India and China - and half a billion people in the world face severe water scarcity all year round.1  Water demand is also increasing in the Mediterranean region. Bordering the Mediterranean Sea, more than 180 million people are now affected by water poverty and an additional 60 million face water stress.2 

Growing Strain On Future Water Supplies 

Adding to the pressure on the world’s water resources, we will require an estimated 50% increase in agricultural production and a 15% increase in water withdrawals to feed a planet of 9 billion people by 2050.3 At the same time, rising average temperatures associated with changing climates are predicted to increase the occurrence and intensity of extreme events, such as droughts and floods.

October 2020 was the warmest on record in Europe.4 According to a Joint Research Centre study released in 2020, southern regions in Europe are expected to be more heavily impacted by extreme heat, water scarcity, drought, forest fires and resultant agricultural losses.5 With southern European countries responsible for producing a large portion of Europe’s food supply, the effects of severe agricultural losses in the regions will be felt widely. 

Learn about the water footprint of foods.

6 Agricultural Solutions To Reduce Water Use

All around the globe, scientists and researchers are working to develop intelligent solutions to reduce water scarcity. The European Institute of Innovation and Technology, for example, has launched an initiative to find solutions to water scarcity, with a particular focus on Southern Europe. 

Here are six smart solutions to reduce water use in agriculture:

1. High-tech irrigation systems

Digitilisation is increasingly incorporated into agriculture systems. Some companies empower farmers to make data-driven decisions and reduce their water consumption by up to 30% thanks to soil-moisture sensors.6 The Italian company Bluetentacles allows farmers to irrigate fields only when necessary, thanks to climate and soil moisture data. A similar system has also been developed by the Spanish startup BioAgro, which has created a smart irrigation platform using low-cost technology based on information obtained by sensors. The sensors calibrate soil moisture and allow automatic irrigation and application of fertilisers only when the crops need it. These platforms could also provide farmers with forecasting and alerts about conditions that may threaten crops, so they can take timely action.

2. Drip irrigation systems for poorer regions

In poorer regions, some of the cheaper and more practical solutions to save water are drip irrigation systems, which use frequent irrigation in small, targeted amounts. These systems consist of digging pipes underground and opening tiny holes in the pipes near the roots of the plants, ensuring minimal water is lost to evaporation in the air. The pipes are then opened frequently in short intervals to provide water for plants at the root zone - right where they need it.7 According to some studies, drip irrigation systems have been used successfully in arid and semi-arid regions for vegetable production, forage crops, and the maintenance of trees.8 

3. Storing water in dry regions

In dry regions, smartly storing water is also very important. In Colombia, the CGIAR Research Programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) focuses on climate-smart agriculture (CSA) to help small-scale farmers adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change. This is achieved by capturing rainwater when available and helping farmers efficiently channel it to reservoirs or storage tanks to be used when the weather is drier.9

Israel: a success story
Israel, which is 60% desert, shows that better water management through these innovative systems is possible: the country has revolutionized its water recycling system to provide 25% of its agricultural water use. Today, nearly 90% of wastewater is recycled in Israel, around four times higher than any other country worldwide.10

4. Recycling wastewater

To better manage wastewater, the Italian Captive Systems remove pollutants from wastewater using magnetic nanoparticles with a ferromagnetic core and external coating. The system can selectively remove different types of pollutants from wastewater, ranging from hydrocarbons and organic compounds to metals. This allows wastewater to be recycled with potential reuse in agriculture.

5. Aquaponics: combining agricultural techniques

Aquaponics provides a fascinating solution to water scarcity. This system results from the combination of aquaculture (the practice of fish farming) and hydroponics (the cultivation of plants in water without soil). In some integrated farms, these systems can reduce water consumption by 90% compared to traditional agriculture.11 

Read more about how aquaponics works.

6. Regenerative agriculture: focusing on soil

To adapt to climate change and reduce greenhouse (GHG) emissions at the same time, researchers, experts and farmers are now exploring “regenerative agriculture”- a way to grow crops that aims to increase biodiversity, enrich soils, improve watersheds, and enhance the health of livestock and wildlife. By focussing primarily on soil health rather than the seeds that are sewn, regenerative agriculture promotes a system where the “health of soil, plants, animals, and humans is one and indivisible”.12 This more circular and holistic view of production is also thought to help crops and fields become more resilient during stressful conditions - particularly during droughts.13

See how regenerative agriculture works on this Greek farm.

What You Can Do To Save Water

While farmers use the latest technologies to avoid wasting water, we can also change our eating habits to reduce some of our water footprint. For example, we could reduce meat consumption (it takes a lot of water to produce meat!) and prefer foods with a lower water footprint. Avoiding food waste is also going to help avoid water waste – so a good rule of thumb could be to buy only what we are realistically going to be able to consume. Ultimately, our beliefs and mindsets will inform our behaviour – so it helps to remember that every drop of water counts.

Learn more ways to calculate and reduce your water footprint.

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  2. UfM UfM on World Water Day: addressing water scarcity in the Mediterranean. Accessed October 26th 2020.
  1. Water in Agriculture. Accessed October 26th 2020.
  2. Surface air temperature for October 2020. Accessed 12th November 2020
  3. JRC PESETA IV. Climate change impacts and adaptation in Europe. Accessed 12th November 2020.
  4. Kerlink and Sensoterra Smart-Farm Solution Targets 30 Percent Reduction in Water Consumption. Accessed October 26th 2020.
  5. Drip Irrigation Saves Water and Improves Crop Yields in Mauritania. Accessed October 26th 2020.
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  7. Holding on to water through climate-smart agriculture. Accessed October 26th 2020.
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  9. Every drop counts. Accessed October 26th 2020.
  10. Lal. (2020) “Regenerative agriculture for food and climate”. Accessed 12th November 2020.
  11. Eit Can regenerative agriculture replace conventional farming?. Accessed 12th November 2020.
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