How to address agriculture’s water woes

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Almond farmers in California are under pressure to reduce the amount of water they use.Credit: Ed Young /Design Pics Editorial/Universal Images Group/Getty

From the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s in North America to the droughts in Ethiopia in the 1980s, Australia in the early 2000s and Syria, Iraq and Iran in 2020, the spectre of water shortages has long hung over the world’s farmlands. When rain fails to arrive season after season, crops wither and cattle starve, and famine and conflict often follow. Climate change brings a whole new level of unpredictability to the rainfall that farmers rely on, either to water their crops directly, or to feed the rivers, lakes, ground water and snowpack from which they draw water for irrigation. And that means agriculture is having to adapt — quickly.

But crops that have been cultivated in the same place or cattle that have occupied the same rangelands for centuries can’t just be packed up and moved to a new area when rain patterns change. Instead, producers — and the governments that rely on them to nourish the populace and the economy — are having to rethink what is really involved in future-proofing an industry that humanity can’t live without. Some of the solutions lie in engineering crops to be more drought tolerant, or choosing crop varieties that are inherently better able to survive in drier conditions. But they also lie in an approach that requires economic and agricultural flexibility.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has forecast that the percentage of the world’s population exposed to extreme drought will increase from 3% to 8% by 2100. If global warming exceeds 3 °C above pre-industrial levels, around 170 million people — mostly in low- and middle-income countries — face extreme drought.“I can see that Africa, Latin America and the Mediterranean continues to become drier,” says Hideki Kanamaru, a natural-resources researcher at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. “These are particular areas of concern [because they] overlap with the historical trend of droughts.”

Modelling suggests that rainfall will generally increase at higher latitudes — towards the poles — but decrease over subtropical areas. Over the past century, there has been a trend towards more rainfall in eastern North and South America, northern Europe, and northern and central Asia. However, there has been less rainfall overall in the Sahel, southern Africa, the Mediterranean and southern Asia. Climate change is also likely to alter monsoon rain patterns, which many agricultural regions rely on for predictable rainfall.

However, this isn’t the only water-scarcity threat faced by producers. Amal Talbi, a hydrogeologist and water-resources management specialist at the World Bank in Washington DC, says that drought can also arise from economic water scarcity.

Whereas physical water scarcity is when there is not enough water to meet the needs of agriculture or other uses that need fresh water, economic water scarcity is when, “you have the water, but you don’t have access to the water because you don’t have the infrastructure,” Talbi says. This distinction is important because the approach to solving these problems is very different.

Flexible food strategies

Physical water scarcity can be tackled in several ways. The first is to use less water overall: “Either you reduce your irrigation area, or you change the crops, so you use crops that use less water,” Talbi says. The second is to boost water sources with methods such as wastewater reuse or desalination plants.

Another method is to be flexible with what crops are grown and when, and then use this to make the most of both water and market demand. This is the approach taken by Jordan, one of the most water-scarce nations. Receiving less than 50 millilitres of rainfall per year, the country is facing an even drier future, with its freshwater supplies per person now just 3% of what they were two decades ago, owing in part to climate change. Despite this, agriculture contributes around 30% of the country’s gross domestic product.

Severe droughts in eastern Australia in 2019 meant farmers had to feed cattle with fodder imported from the other side of the country.Credit: David Gray/Getty

Jordan’s answer to worsening water shortages is to focus on growing high-value, water-intensive crops for export, such as strawberries and tomatoes, in the central and northern Jordan Valley region. Although this area gets some rainfall, farmers also have access to the Jordan River and the King Abdullah Canal, an irrigation project that provides water to the Jordan Valley.

It might seem illogical to grow water-hungry crops in a water-deprived landscape, but Talbi says it makes more sense than growing a crop such as wheat. “For the same land, what you would get in terms of these foods — exporting them, getting that money and then buying wheat — you will have much more than if you were using wheat in that area,” she says. Jordan also has another advantage: its climate means that those high-value seasonal products ripen earlier than they do in regions such as Spain and Portugal, so Jordan gets them to European markets ahead of other producers. “In a way, it is among the best countries in the region in terms of managing the water scarcity, given that they have so little options,” Talbi says.

Morocco has a more complex water scenario to negotiate because different parts of the country experience different rainfall. Its largest crop is wheat, followed by barley, but it also produces high-value, water-hungry crops such as tomatoes, potatoes, citrus fruits and watermelon. Farmers and businesses there, like those in Jordan, grow high-value crops in irrigated areas where the water supply can be more carefully controlled and is therefore reliable, and save the less water-hungry crops for the rain-fed regions. “Roughly 50% of the time Morocco has a low rainfall, 50% it has good rainfall, so it has high variability,” Talbi says. When rainfall is good, they plant wheat and grains, and when it isn’t they maximize their irrigated high-value crops and use this money to buy wheat and to compensate the grain farmers.

Change in the times

Another factor that influences physical water availability is changes to the timing of previously predictable climatic patterns. In the northwest United States — Oregon, Washington and Idaho — wheat, tree fruit such as apples and cherries, and potatoes are the dominant crops. These are watered by a combination of rain and irrigation, the latter of which relies on the annual snowpack melting and delivering a flush of water to rivers and lakes in the Columbia River basin.

But rainfall patterns are changing, says Georgine Yorgey, the associate director of the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University in Mount Vernon. “We’re going to hold less water in snowpack, more precipitation falling as rain at shoulder times of year and in shoulder elevations, and then also earlier snowmelt,” Yorgey says. And that has implications for planting and harvesting. “We have more of a mismatch between when the water comes and when the water is needed.”

The timing of a crop’s sensitivity to water stress — when it is likely to have the greatest impact — varies between crops, Kanamaru says. “The last stage — ripening through harvest stage — they are not so sensitive to water stress,” he says. “The next critical stage is planting to early vegetation and the most critical stage is during reproduction.” If rainfall patterns change, it could mean that the timing of planting and harvesting of crops has to change. It’s not a new strategy in agriculture, but one that is being considered much more broadly in the face of shifting temperatures and rainfall patterns. One study has found evidence that the sowing of spring crops such as maize (corn), rice, sorghum and soya bean can shift by 10–30 days across different regions (S. Minoli et al. Nature Commun. 13, 7079; 2022). Another project in Australia found that moving the planting window for sorghum forward by four weeks reduced the risk of high summer temperatures causing heat stress during flowering (see

However, being flexible and tailoring each year’s agricultural focus to rainfall works only with crops that are planted and harvested in yearly cycles. It’s less viable for longer-lived crops, such as tree nuts, as California’s almond industry is discovering. The almond sector has quadrupled in size in the past 20 years, and is now the fourth largest agricultural commodity in the state, supplying around 80% of the world’s almonds. This expansion comes at a water cost: in 2021, the crop consumed 520 billion gallons more water than it did in 2017.

Strawberry farmers in Morocco grow the crop in irrigated areas where the water supply is carefully controlled but reliable.Credit: Youssef Boudlal/Reuters

In the past two years, drought has forced a reckoning, and there are now calls for the almond industry to reduce in size to preserve the state’s water supply in times of shortage. An almond tree can take around seven years to become fully productive, so it’s an industry that can’t just turn on a dime. As a result, producers are facing some tough decisions about its future viability in a drier, hotter climate.

Cattle are a lot more mobile than an almond tree, but even in a country with grazing lands as vast and expansive as Australia’s, droughts have had devastating effects on this agricultural sector. “There were genuine shortages of feed for livestock. We had farmers in the eastern side of Australia with very hungry livestock, having to pay very high prices to ship grain and fodder from the other side of the country because there was none in eastern Australia,” says Neal Hughes in Geelong, Australia, who is an economist at the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences — a national government research agency.

Australia is usually a significant exporter of grain around the world, accounting for around 13% of all global wheat exports. But during the last devastating drought, which culminated in the Black Summer bush fires of 2019 and 2020, Australia’s contribution to wheat exports dropped drastically, and the nation even ended up having to import small amounts of grain to meet domestic needs, Hughes says. It was a shot across the bow of a country with an economy that is heavily dependent on its natural resources, warning that climate change could threaten a long-cherished status quo.

An issue of access

Economic water insecurity is a very different challenge, because solutions require a cross-disciplinary approach. A big issue is that the water exists, but requires efficient and affordable irrigation to enable farmers to get to it. In regions such as West Africa and the Sahel, the cost of irrigation is astronomical compared with that in other nations, Talbi says. For example, to irrigate one hectare in the Sahel can cost up to US$20,000, whereas doing the same in China might be around $600–700 per hectare, she says.

One reason is that the supply chain for irrigation equipment is not yet established in Africa, so these products must be imported. Getting irrigation set up not only where it’s needed, but how it’s needed is also a challenge. Pumps and infrastructure can’t simply be parachuted in for free, Talbi says. Those systems have to be built from the ground-up if they are to be sustainable in the long term.

Water isn’t the only challenge that agriculture faces in a climate-changed future, but historically it has been the most devastating, accounting for at least half of agricultural losses, Kanamaru says. And that’s only going to get worse. “Climate change is an additional amplifier to the long-standing problems of managing water,” he says.

Finding solutions will require a holistic approach. “There are many parameters: variables we can modulate in this complex balance between demand and supply of water,” he says. “But I think we need to take a step back and look at the water budget of the whole hydrological cycle.”

Source: Resources -

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