The 2020 edition of this flagship publication, part of the State of the World series, addresses the two main water challenges affecting agriculture and food production: water shortages and scarcity. The report presents new estimates on the pervasiveness of water scarcity in irrigated agriculture and of water shortages in rainfed agriculture, as well as on the number of people affected. It finds major differences across countries, and also substantial spatial variation within countries.
Some of the core messages of the report are:
- Achieving sustainable development faces a key challenge: 3.2 billion people live in agricultural areas with high to very high water shortages or scarcity, of whom 1.2 billion people – roughly one-sixth of the world’s population – live in severely water-constrained agricultural areas.
- Socio-economic development is another important driver of increasing demand for water, as it contributes to shifting diets towards more water-intensive foods (e.g. meat and dairy products). Healthy diets that include sustainability considerations at the food systems level can reduce the associated water consumption.
- Rising competition for water and the effects of climate change are leading to tensions and conflicts among stakeholders, thereby exacerbating inequalities in access to water, especially for vulnerable populations, including the rural poor, women and indigenous populations.
- With ten years to go until 2030, first estimates for Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Indicator 6.4.2 on water stress, together with persistent water shortages in rainfed agriculture, suggest that ensuring sustainable management of water for all remains a challenge. As water is closely linked to several other SDGs, not least that of achieving Zero Hunger, managing scarce water resources well will be a critical determinant for fully achieving them.
- Improving sustainability of water use in agriculture will mean guaranteeing environmental flow requirements to sustain ecosystem functions, which are often overlooked – it has been estimated that 41 percent of current global irrigation water use occurs at the expense of environmental flow requirements.
- Water accounting and auditing, which are rarely done, should therefore be the starting point of any effective strategy for addressing water shortages and scarcity.
- Policies and regulations play a central role in boosting the implementation of technologies and innovations, for example, through financing, capacity-development programmes and enforcing environmental flow requirements.
- Policy coherence and governance mechanisms across administrative scales and sectors are essential for efficient, sustainable and equitable water resources management.