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    Water is a critical input for agricultural production and plays an important role in food security. Irrigated agriculture represents 20 percent of the total cultivated land and contributes 40 percent of the total food produced worldwide. Irrigated agriculture is, on average, at least twice as productive per unit of land as rainfed agriculture, thereby allowing for more production intensification and crop diversification.

    Due to population growth, urbanization, and climate change, competition for water resources is expected to increase, with a particular impact on agriculture. Population is expected to increase to over 10 billion by 2050, and whether urban or rural, this population will need food and fiber to meet its basic needs. Combined with the increased consumption of calories and more complex foods, which accompanies income growth in the developing world, it is estimated that agricultural production will need to expand by approximately 70% by 2050. 

    However, future demand on water by all sectors will require as much as 25 to 40% of water to be re-allocated from lower to higher productivity and employment activities, particularly in water stressed regions. In most cases, such reallocation is expected to come from agriculture due to its high share of water use. Currently, agriculture accounts (on average) for 70 percent of all freshwater withdrawals globally (and an even higher share of “consumptive water use” due to the evapotranspiration of crops).

    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 mainly from the 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. 

    Inter-sectoral water re-allocations and significant shifts of water away from agriculture will also need to be accompanied by improvements in water use efficiency and improvements in water delivery systems. Improving the efficiency of water use in agriculture will also depend on matching of improvements main system (off-farm) with appropriate incentives for on-farm investments aiming to improve soil and water management. Such options will require improved water delivery systems to provide adequate on-demand service as well as use of advanced technologies (i.e. soil moisture sensors and satellite evapotranspiration measurements) to improve efficiency and productivity of water in agriculture. 

    Resolving the challenges of the future 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. Moreover, irrigation and drainage schemes, whether large or small, represent prominent spatially dispersed public works in the rural spaces. Thereby, they represent a logical vehicle for mobilizing employment opportunities into communities.

    Practical Challenges for Water in Agriculture

    The ability to improve water management in agriculture is typically constrained by inadequate policies, major institutional under-performance, and financing limitations. Critical public and private institutions (encompassing agricultural and water ministries, basin authorities, irrigation agencies, water users’ and farmer organizations) generally lack the enabling environment and necessary capacities to effectively carry out their functions.

    For example, basin authorities often hold limited ability to enforce water allocations and to convene stakeholders. Institutions charged with developing irrigation often limit themselves to capital-intensive larger scale schemes and tend to rely on public sector-based approaches rather than developing opportunities for small-scale private financing and irrigation management. Farmers and their organizations are also often responding to highly distorted incentive frameworks in terms of water pricing and agricultural support policies, which further hinder positive developments in the sector.

    Moreover, 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 sufficiently maintain systems that results in their declining performance and the subsequent need for rehabilitation. This failure to provide adequate funds for maintenance of I&D systems has resulted in the “build-neglect-rehabilitate-neglect” cycle commonly observed in the sector.

    Given the existing constraints above, the agricultural water management sector is currently in the process of repositioning itself towards modern and sustainable service provision. It proposes a singular water approach on building resilient water services and sustaining water resources, while also managing risks related to broader social and economic water-related impacts. This includes transforming governance and service provision as well as supporting watershed management and greening the sector and can be achieved by providing improved incentives for innovation, reforms, and accountability.

    Last Updated: May 08, 2020

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    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.

    Last Updated: Feb 11, 2020

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    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 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.

    In fiscal year 2020, two projects in Cameroon aim to provide sustainable irrigation and drainage services as well as improve agricultural production in irrigated areas. The Valorization of Investments in the Valley of the Benue and the Valorization of Investments in the Valley of the Logone each provide an investment of $200 million. Both projects combine improvements in infrastructure with related institutional and governance reforms in the irrigation subsector, along with rehabilitation or extension of irrigated areas. 

    Since 2014, female farmers in the Gambia receive assistance with systems combining solar pumping with drip irrigation through the Gambia Commercial Agriculture and Value Chain Management Project. Vegetable gardens were fully equipped with boreholes and galvanized overhead tanks, using solar-powered water pumps to withdraw water from aquifers, and also with labor- and water-saving drip irrigation systems, modernizing the way vegetable gardening is done by women and improving their livelihood.  

    The Modernizing Irrigation in Central Asia Initiative launched in 2018 supported irrigation clients in Central Asia towards modernization, through early exposure, learning and adoption of sub-system and on-farm modernization concepts in irrigation. The initiative enabled regional dialogue, which culminated in a Regional Workshop that took place in Almaty, Kazakhstan in November 2019, drawing 94 delegates including policy makers, irrigation practitioners, scientists and researchers, representatives of water user association (WUAs), private sector actors, and international partners and donors. The initiative offered a transformation pathway through: policy development and legislation; institutional reform;  modernization of irrigation and drainage infrastructure;  strengthening of agricultural services and practices; and improved utilization of knowledge and information systems. 

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    Last Updated: Jun 24, 2021



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World Bank Group Water Global Practice
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