Water in Agriculture

February 27, 2017


Context | Strategy | Results | Partners | Innovation Series | Blog Series


Water use in agriculture is at the core of any discussion of water and food security.  Agriculture accounts for, on average, 70 percent of all water withdrawals globally, and an even higher share of “consumptive water use” due to the evapotranspiration requirements of crops.  Worldwide, over 330 million hectares are equipped for irrigation.  Irrigated agriculture represents 20 percent of the total cultivated land, but contributes 40 percent of the total food produced worldwide.

Competition for water resources is expected to increase in the future, with particular pressure on agriculture. Significant shifts of inter-sectoral water allocations will be required to support continued economic growth.   Due to population growth, urbanization, industrialization, and climate change, improved water use efficiency will need to be matched by reallocation of as much as 25 to 40% of water in water stressed regions, from lower to higher productivity and employment activities.  In most cases, this reallocation is expected to come from agriculture, due to its high share of water use.  The movement of water will need to be both physical and virtual.  Physical movement of water can occur through changes in initial allocations of surface and groundwater resources as well as conveyance of water ‘sales’, mainly from agricultural to urban, environmental, and industrial users.  Water can also move virtually as the production of water intensive food, goods, and services is concentrated in water abundant localities and is traded to water scarce localities. 

At the same time, water in agriculture will continue to play a critical role in global food security.  Population is expected to increase to over 10 billion by 2050, and whether urban or rural, this population will need food and fiber for its basic needs. Combined with the increased consumption of calories and more complex foods, which accompanies income growth in much of the developing world, it is estimated that agricultural production will need to expand 70% by 2050.  If this expansion is not to come at the expense of massive land conversions and the consequent impact on carbon emissions, agriculture will have to intensify.  Given that irrigated agriculture is, on average, at least twice as productive per unit of land, provides an important buffer against increasing climate variability, and allows for more secure crop diversification, it is certain that irrigation will continue to play a key role in ensuring global food and nutrition security.

The above projections for both water and food security appear, at first look, to be contradictory, On one hand, there is a need to use less water in agriculture, but on the other hand, more intensive use of water in agriculture is a key element of sustainable intensification of food production.  Resolving this apparent quandary requires a thorough reconsideration of how water is managed in the agricultural sector, and how it can be repositioned in the broader context of overall water resources management and water security.

Practical Challenges for Water in Agriculture

The ability to improve water management in agriculture is constrained by perverse policies, major institutional performance, and financing limitations.  The critical public and private institutions – including agricultural and water ministries, basin authorities, irrigation managers, water user and farmer organizations – generally lack the authorizing environment and capacities to carry out their functions effectively.  For example, basin authorities often have limited ability to enforce allocations, and hence, to convene stakeholders.  The institutions charged with developing irrigation often limit themselves to capital intensive, larger scale schemes, and tend to rely on public sector approaches rather than develop opportunities for private financing and management.  Farmers and their organizations are often responding to highly distorted incentive frameworks in terms of water pricing and agricultural support policies.

Most governments and water users fail to invest adequately in the maintenance of irrigation and drainage (I&D) systems.  While inadequate management and operation may play a part in the poor performance of I&D systems, it is especially the failure to adequately maintain systems that results in their declining performance and the subsequent need for rehabilitation. This failure to provide adequate funds for maintenance of the I&D system has resulted in the all too familiar “build-neglect-rehabilitate-neglect” cycle.

Improving the efficiency of water use in agriculture will also depend on matching off-farm improvements with incentives and technology transfer for on-farm investments in improved soil and water management and improved seeds.  Options such as enhanced seeds, low-till, alternate wetting and drying, sustainable rice intensification, and others exist, but require matching improvements in water delivery systems to provide on-demand service, with the use of information technology like soil moisture sensors and satellite evapotranspiration measurement to improve efficiency and productivity of water in agriculture.


The World Bank is committed to assisting countries meet their economic growth and poverty reduction targets based on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  SDG 2 and SDG 6 establish food security and water management efficiency and water quality objectives for countries which are dependent on how water is managed in agriculture.  Accordingly, the Bank has a major interest in helping countries advance their management of water in agriculture.

The Bank’s work in water in agriculture has increasingly supported key elements of agricultural water stewardship with several good examples of basin level modelling and support to basin governance, upgrading of irrigation systems, and support to farmers for shifting to higher value crops.  However, due to its own fracturing of the water agenda in the Bank, there has been limited attention to addressing the higher level policy drivers of water use in agriculture, linking it to the overall integrated water resources management agenda, and facilitating broader water stakeholder cooperation.  Project development objectives and indicators have focused almost exclusively on farmer income, and inconsistently highlight water service improvements, though recent program have begun to explicitly consider improvements in overall water quantity and quality impacts.

The Bank has also been constrained by the challenges of difficult implementation.  Most irrigation and drainage projects take longer than planned, and even then complete with less than fully satisfactory outcomes due to basic challenges in design and contracting.  As a result, even where institutional and other aspects are addressed by project design, there is little space during implementation for the Bank and client to focus on broader issues of incentives and behavioral change prior to project closing, but rather all efforts are committed to completion of physical works. 

In order to support clients in moving towards agricultural water stewardship, the World Bank is strengthening its overall approach to water in agriculture.  This includes reassessment of the Bank’s approach to client dialogue and supporting analytical work to ensure that we bring a whole water system perspective.   Project design and implementation are providing the space to better balance infrastructure construction with institutional development consistent with agricultural water stewardship.  In order to support this ambitious agenda, the World Bank is investing in upgrading the knowledge and skills of its staff, and strengthening partnerships, in order to bring experience and global expertise to the benefit of our clients.

Water in Agriculture Global Solutions Group

The Bank’s work on water in agriculture is supported by the Water in Agriculture Global Solutions Group (GSG), a membership based organization which provides services to its members and other stakeholders interested in enhancing how water is used in agriculture in terms of sustainability, productivity, and equity. The GSG is ‘co-owned’ by, and has strong membership representation from, the Water Global Practice and the Agriculture Global Practice, as well as other Global Practices, Cross Cutting Solutions Groups, and the International Finance Corporation.  The GSG organizes direct support to task teams in developing and ensuring the quality of analytical and lending activities throughout the project cycle.  This includes an in-depth review of what determines successful implementation of water in agriculture engagements, developing guidance materials for institutional assessments, integration of other priority themes, and linking Bank supported programs to the agricultural water stewardship.


Support for water in agriculture projects accounts for the largest share of the World Bank’s support for agricultural productivity-related activities. 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 (WUAs), 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.

The Second Rural Electrification and Renewable Energy Development Project (RERED II) pilots the installation of solar-powered irrigation pumps and aims to increase access to clean energy in rural Bangladesh where grids are not economically viable. Farmers in the pilot area have been switching from diesel-run to solar irrigation pumps. By reducing irrigation costs, solar pumps are becoming popular, especially in areas without electricity grid coverage. Compared to their diesel counterparts, these pumps are also more reliable and easier to maintain. More than 300 pumps were installed, benefiting more than 6,000 farmers, with a target of 1,250 additional pumps by 2018. Each solar pump can supply electricity for 3 crop irrigations for 20 acres of land.

 Since 2008, the Irrigation and Water Resources Management Project (IWRMP) has been working towards improving agriculture productivity and the management of selected irrigation schemes in Nepal, as well as enhancing institutional capacity for integrated water resources management. The primary beneficiaries are over 415,200 water users of selected farmer-managed irrigation systems (FMIS), covering over 26,859 ha, mainly in the hill regions. The project also targets the irrigation management transfer in four agency-managed irrigation systems (AMIS) and essential structural improvements covering about 23,000 ha.


International Water Management Institute

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

International Food Policy Research Institute


International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage

Water for Food Daugherty Global Institute at the University of Nebraska


Innovation Series

The Water in Agriculture Innovation Series is a collaborative knowledge platform offered by the Water in Agriculture Global Solutions Group at the World Bank and partners across academia, public and private institutions, and civil society on agriculture and water issues. The series aims to share and promote innovations related to water in agriculture. Check out the webinars of the innovation series here:

Water in Agriculture Innovation Series

Last Updated: Mar 10, 2017



Steven N. Schonberger

Practice Manager for the Middle East and North Africa Region, Water Global Practice | Global Lead for Water in Agriculture

Rémi Trier

Senior Water Resources and Irrigation Specialist