Water plays a vital role in agricultural intensification. In the past several decades, the concentration of inputs on high-value land has relieved pressure on land expansion, increased farm incomes and allowed an urbanizing global population a measure of food security. But it comes at a cost. Globally, agriculture water withdrawals (2,703 km3/yr) account for more than double the combined withdrawals for municipal and industrial use (468 km3/yr and 731 km3/yr, respectively). The application of agrochemicals and the accumulation of low quality surface and groundwater within and beyond irrigation schemes has degraded land and polluted watercourses, aquifers and coastal zones.

Current levels of demand is already stressing river basins and aquifers, with water scarcity driving the rapid rise in groundwater use in agriculture. And with rising populations, growing incomes and more unpredictable rainfall patterns, demand for water in agriculture is expected to grow.  

Managing the global agricultural production risk in the face of producer price volatility, increasing temperatures, and more variable events will require both rainfed and irrigated agricultural systems to become much more responsive to climate shocks and much more flexible in approach while staying within environmental limits. Water scarcity can managed by more attention to river basin planning, transparent allocation of water among competing sectors and by better maintenance and operation of existing infrastructure in that basin.  At the farm level, farmers can switch to less water intensive crops, and different farming techniques to generate more value from the water and other inputs at their disposal.  

Last Updated: Jun 12, 2013

The World Bank is working together with its member countries and investment partners to reform water use in agriculture. To ensure such reforms are environmentally sustainable, the Bank uses an approach to irrigation and drainage projects that emphasizes transparent accounting of agricultural water use, modernization of existing public irrigation schemes, and transformation of public institutions together with improved sector investment planning.

The expansion of irrigation will also continue to be an important source of productivity growth, especially in Africa and parts of Latin America that still have large untapped water resources and opportunities for economically feasible agricultural use. In other regions where the scope for further expanding irrigated agriculture is limited, more efforts are needed to better use the available water, raising water productivity and its sustainable use. This includes addressing the technical, policy, and governance aspects of agricultural water use while accounting for the competing demands of other water-using sectors. Ensuring sustainability of irrigation investments will require more effective measures to achieve sustainable financing for operation and maintenance. 

The World Bank will continue to help its clients improve water management in rainfed agriculture, which covers most of the world’s cropland and accounts for most of agricultural production in developing countries. Combined with an improvement in other production factors, such as soil fertility, crop varieties, and tillage practices, better management of rainfall and runoff can help to achieve significant increases in yields and agricultural productivity.

Specifically, the World Bank will continue to support: (i) strengthening water management in rainfed areas through a combination of measures ranging from technological interventions, such as water harvesting and other water control and water capture infrastructure, to the provision of better climatic information and innovative approaches that allow farmers to better cope with the risks posed by climate variability; (ii) improving watershed management practices, in particular in rainfed areas, and reforestation in upper watersheds to reduce soil erosion and enhance water capture; (iii) expanding new irrigated areas, especially in Africa, with a focus on viable smallholder and small-scale, community-managed irrigation, and also public-private partnerships; (iv) rehabilitating and modernizing existing irrigated areas, including large-scale systems; (v) strengthening irrigation services, including for women, as well as supporting water user associations and the decentralization of management functions, including for more sustainable operation and maintenance of irrigation systems; (vi) strengthening systems for water rights allocation and improving water pricing; (vii) putting a stronger focus on assessing water resource availability in the longer-term and promoting irrigation water conservation, including through better monitoring and modeling; and (viii) improving river basin and groundwater management through institutional development and a move toward more integrated water management.

Support for irrigation and drainage accounts for the largest share of the World Bank’s support for agricultural productivity related activities. The level of commitments to irrigation and drainage during FY2010–12 increased to about $1 billion per year, representing 12% of total water lending. Projects that closed in FY2010–11 had supported one and half million hectares of new or improved irrigation. Projects that were approved in FY2011 alone are targeting two million hectares. .

Technological innovations combined with changes in the policy environment are playing an increasingly important role in agricultural water management. Advances in the use of remote sensing technologies are now making it possible to cost-effectively estimate crop evapotranspiration (the sum of evaporation and plant transpiration to the atmosphere) from farmers’ fields and to improve water accounting and management at the regional and basin-wide levels. Since 2010, China has adopted this approach in the Xinjiang Turpan Water Conservation Project in the arid northwest region of the country.

The On-Farm Irrigation Project in the Kyrgyz Republic was designed to achieve increased crop production through reliable and sustainable water distribution in former state and collective farms across seven administrative regions. A core activity has been strengthening services to about 450 water users associations, including training and support. Considerable success was achieved in establishing and improving water user associations. Over 50,000 people were trained, and approximately 450 user associations, with 166,000 members, were formally registered to manage irrigation areas covering 710,000 hectares, or about 70%of the country's irrigated land.

The Peru Irrigation Subsector Project raised agricultural production and productivity by enhancing the sustainability and efficiency of existing public irrigation systems. As a result of the project, water conveyance efficiency increased by up to 68% in improved irrigation systems, and the program formalized about 190,000 new water rights. The project benefitted 135,000 farm families over a total irrigated area of 435,000 hectares, created 6,400 new jobs, and generally increased agricultural productivity. Yields per hectare were raised by up to 50% in on-farm improvement areas.