How People, Water and Agriculture Connect

When you think of water, what comes to mind? Is it a cool swig after a hard workout? Is it your beach vacation from last year? Or is it whether or not enough water will fall from the sky to grow your food?

March 22 is World Water Day, and it’s an opportunity to reflect on the importance of water. This year’s theme is “better water, better jobs.” How does water impact agriculture, which employs nearly 1 billion people around the world? Let’s take a look.

Although nearly 70 percent of the Earth is covered in water, only 2.5 percent of that water is fresh. To complicate things, only 1 percent of that fresh water is easily accessible. To sum it up, only 0.025 percent of the planet’s water is available for human use.

Agriculture uses a lot of water, accounting for almost 70 percent of all withdrawals and up to 95 percent in developing countries where there may be fewer technologies to make water use efficient. While you only need to drink about a gallon of water per day, it takes 528 to 1,320 gallons of water to grow the food you eat in a single day. Think about that.

Water is important in maintaining food security, which is defined as “regular access of people to enough high-quality food to leave active, healthy lives.” Lack of water, or too much water, can contribute to famine and undernourishment, especially where people depend on local agriculture for their livelihood. Using water efficiently is critical.

Irrigation is an important technology to help maximize the efficiency of water use in agriculture. The highest yields that can be obtained from irrigation are more than double the best yields from rain-fed agriculture. For instance, drip irrigation involves distributing water at very low rates from a system of plastic pipes with outlets called emitters or drippers. The water is released so that the only part of the soil that receives moisture is where the root grows.

Unfortunately, irrigation can be expensive for small-scale farmers in developing countries. Some farmers make their own versions by building earth barriers or furrows that direct rainwater runoff to crops. To prepare for dry periods, farmers can collect rainwater in reservoirs, ponds or other basins.

Biotechnology also has a role to play in helping to conserve water. The first biotech maize hybrids with a degree of drought tolerance were commercially available in 2013 in the U.S. The first tropical biotech drought tolerant maize is expected to be in sub-Saharan Africa by 2017. Drought tolerance is expected to play a major role in sustainable cropping systems worldwide, particularly in developing countries.

The agriculture sector is focusing more than ever on how to protect the environment, conserve water resources, and keep water systems clean while feeding a growing global population. New technologies are one key component. Using and managing the world’s water efficiently is everyone’s job. This can be as simple as turning off the tap when brushing your teeth, boiling food in as little water as possible and taking shorter showers.

Empowering people to understand water management techniques and to take ownership of their choices could drastically change how the world uses its water.