Former Secretary Dan Glickman addressing the Chicago Council of Global Affairs last month said that "Water is the most important resource issue of our time."  He hit the nail on the head. While most of planet earth is covered by water only 2.5% of that water is fresh water.  And 70% of that fresh water is used for agriculture irrigation. 

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), each person requires 2-4 liters of water per day, but it takes 2,000 to 5,000 liters of water to produce one person’s daily food.

 Looking down the road, we can see the handwriting on the wall.  The world’s exploding population along with climate change makes the need for water, food and energy inextricably linked. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) expects both an increased incidence of drought as well as an increase in the incidence of floods and other extreme events.  As a result, if nothing changes, they predict a 50% decrease in crop yields at the exact same time the global demand for food is increasing. According to the State Department, in the next forty years, the world’s farmers will have to produce the same amount of food that has been produced in the last 10,000 years, combined, to feed a population of 9 billion people in 2050.

While the focus of the IPCC was global, we can see disturbing trends right here in the United States.  The water level in the High Plains Aquifer which runs from South Dakota to Texas is dropping dramatically.  The heavy use of pivot irrigation coupled with drought the last few years has had its impact.  According to one report in the New York Times (May 19, 2013), some farmers are switching from growing corn to growing sorghum and milo because it requires less water.  

In March, the United Nations University issued an analytical brief entitled “Water Security and the Global Water Agenda.”   In his Forward, Michael Jarraud, UN-Water Chair, noted: “the issue of water security has been gaining traction in the global political agenda and earning attention from national governments at the highest level, in particular for its links to peace and national security, but also for its implications for development issues.” According to the UN, in 2030, 47% of world population will be living in areas of high water stress. Most population growth will occur in developing countries, mainly in regions that are already experiencing water stress and in areas with limited access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation facilities.

What to do?  

First and foremost, water policy and water security must be acknowledged as critical to global food security, human development and national security. During the International Day of Biological Diversity, Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon said “We live in an increasingly water insecure world where demand often outstrips supply and where water quality often fails to meet minimum standards. Under current trends, future demands for water will not be met.” The subject of water policy must be added to the agendas of all such discussions. 

Water conservation and building an infrastructure to maintain and manage existing supplies of water is a high priority. Zambia, for example, has a lot of fresh water in its lakes and rivers but the smallholder farmers still live from rain to rain as there are no irrigation systems. Village women must walk their goats many miles a day to the closest fresh water.  In one village I visited, the residents were building a small dam without any power tools. 


Women in a Zambia village building a dam using only hand tools.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs suggests that US agriculture needs to adapt a global perspective through sustainable intensification. In terms of water where rainfall is essential, this means harvesting water, reducing runoff in fields and improving irrigation system efficiency. 

More efficient irrigation is a high priority.  Last year, the World Food Prize was given to Dr. Daniel Hillel for his extraordinary research on drip irrigation. Dr. Hillel’s pioneering scientific work in Israel revolutionized food production, first in the Middle East, and then in other regions around the world over the past five decades.  His work laid the foundation for maximizing efficient water usage in agriculture, increasing crop yields, and minimizing environmental degradation.  Further, with drip irrigation, the water used for irrigation can be recycled after human use.   

In announcing Dr. Hillel’s award, Secretary Hillary Clinton said "Water has been a very big topic of concern here in the State Department." Clinton continued, "We have tried to focus our government’s attention and the world’s attention on the importance of getting ahead of what will be a devastating water crisis if we are not smarter and more purposeful in addressing the problems now. It’s especially fitting that we honor today someone who has made such contributions because he understood the critical role that water plays in agriculture and the importance of getting every last drop used efficiently."

In May, the journal Nature published an article by 12 international scientists summarizing their research using membrane transporters in seed technology to create seeds compatible with saline soil. 

Improved seeds that use less water as well as seeds that can grow in saline soils must be a priority of the public and private agriculture research agenda.  Seeds are entering the market that produce higher crop yields, need less water and are resistant to disease. They have the capacity to fundamentally change the game.  The theme of the World Food Prize that will be announced by Secretary Kerry on June 17, 2013 is “The Next Borlaug Century: Biotechnology, Sustainability and Climate Change.”  

Complicating the discussion of global water security, much of the globe’s fresh water crosses political boundaries.  Around the world, there are some 276 major trans-boundary watersheds, crossing the territories of 145 countries and covering nearly half of the earth’s land surface.  For example, in Southern Africa, the Nile River Basin, the Mekong River in Southeast Asia, and the Danube River Basin in Europe all require cooperation…not to mention the Western Unites States where tensions are mounting between States served by the Colorado River. 

In the United States and around the globe agriculture technology is also important in conserving water while increasing yields. As GPS, yield monitoring and planting systems continue to advance, like those from Raven Industries of South Dakota, there is an opportunity to improve harvests while, capturing and monitoring water for growers. 

In a world where 780 million people need access to clean water and 2.5 billion do not have sanitation, there will be pressure on the world’s farmers to produce more with less. If new innovations are not encouraged and embraced by and for agriculture, one thing is for certain, everybody will lose. 

About the Author:  Marshall Matz served as Counsel to the Senate Agriculture Committee and founded Friends of the World Food Program—USA.  He specializes on agriculture policy at OFW Law.    To contact