Agriculture Beyond Water

June 30, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Drought is becoming more prevalent and causing havoc for food producers around the globe. Many regions have been hit by severe water scarcity over the past few years and this trend seems set to continue.

New data from NASA shows how the world is running out of water, with more than half of the earth’s largest aquifers being depleted. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that by 2020, upwards of half a billion people worldwide will be facing water stress, while US scientists are predicting an historic mega-drought unless we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. But droughts don’t only mean a shortage of water, they also lead to a shortage of food. With many farmers already experiencing crop failures, what can be done to ensure a sustainable food supply and avoid a food security crisis?

Below are just a few examples of what is happening around the world right now, and gives an indication of the scale of the problem.


California is in the midst of a devastating four-year drought. It follows a decade of below average rainfalls and all indications are that this is set to continue. In addition, groundwater sources are being drained by deeper and deeper drilling. An aquifer beneath the Central Valley is now being tapped by more than 100,000 wells. Measures have been brought in to curtail consumption and some farmers have agreed to cut water use voluntarily by 25% in order to avoid further restrictions. But is California doing enough? New laws forcing water agencies to prevent overuse of groundwater have a planning period of six to eight years and a much longer period before meaningful action will take place – by which time there may be little groundwater left.

North Korea

North Korea is experiencing its worst drought in 100 years, leading to severe food shortages. With 10.5 million people already suffering from hunger, this number is expected to rise as food production levels fall by 50%.

Central America

Last year a prolonged drought pushed 2.5 million people into hunger, leading to what the United Nations called a ‘creeping humanitarian crisis’. Crops were hit hard, with 80% of farmers in El Salvador’s most vulnerable areas reporting total losses, while Honduras and Guatemala saw a 75% loss in maize and bean crops. The food shortage has carried over to this year, and Nicaragua also now requires food assistance.


Brazil has been suffering one of the worst droughts in its history, which left the country’s largest city, São Paulo, “teetering on the brink.” This is the third year of high temperatures and low rainfall, leaving 11 million people facing severe water shortages. The Cantareira reservoir system, which serves 9 million people, was only 5% full in February this year. Though rain has now relieved the pressure, there may not have been enough to fully replenish reservoirs. Lack of water has also crippled Brazil’s power source, 75% of which comes from hydroelectricity. The drought has been unusual in a country that has 12% of the world’s fresh water, and it has exacerbated tension and unrest. Studies suggest that deforestation is causing disruption in Amazonian rainfall patterns.

Brazil is one of the world’s largest agricultural exporters, particularly of products such as sugar, coffee, beef, poultry, soybeans and corn, and irrigation for farming accounts for 72% of Brazil’s water use. Last year drought affected coffee plantations, leading to a rise in the international price of coffee beans. Farmers also saw a 20% loss of the citrus crop, a 10% loss in bean production, a 26% reduction in corn production, and a 17% loss in soy production.


Peru relies heavily on glacial water, but glaciers have reduced by 40% over the past 40 years due to climate change. Agriculture accounts for 80% of water used in Peru. The Ica region is one of the world’s driest places but is also the centre of Peru’s agricultural export industry, producing more than 120,000 tonnes of asparagus per annum, as well as cotton, grapes and olives. Because of the dry climate, water is pumped from aquifers, but the aquifers are not being replenished quickly enough. Schemes to pump water from the Andean highlands will reduce water sources for indigenous llama herders, and threaten ecosystem stability. These irrigation schemes tend to favour large agribusinesses and eventually degrade the soil through salinisation.


Northern China is suffering its worst drought in 60 years, with more than half of the country’s major rivers drying up. Trends show the country is growing warmer while rainfall levels are decreasing. Farmers lost around USD 1.2 billion last year due to water shortages. Reservoirs grew so dry in Henan Province that car washes and bath houses were closed. The government has begun importing thirsty crops rather than growing them in an attempt to alleviate pressure, but this depends on the security of the global market. Extensive canal building is also attempting to move water from the southern to the northern region, but this won’t help farmers who have to compete for water with industries such as steel foundries and coal-fired power plants.


Australia suffered prolonged drought from 2003, with 2006 reported to be the ‘worst drought in 100 years’, resulting in a 30% fall in agricultural GDP. In 2014, Queensland saw its most widespread drought on record. The wheat harvest for the 2014/15 crop year was 12% lower than the five-year average. This has left many farmers out of pocket and unable to reinvest. The Murray-Darling basin is Australia’s breadbasket, but intensive farming and extensive irrigation has been draining the water supply, leading the government to force farmers to reduce their use by 30%–40%.


In 2011, the Horn of Africa experienced its worst drought in 60 years, leading to a food crisis across Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya. Poor rainfall in Kenya last year affected pastoral and marginal agriculture resulting in 1.5 million people being classed as acutely food insecure, and more than 1 million people in the Turkana region requiring food aid. Drought struck the Sahel region in 2010 when Chad and Niger experienced the hottest temperatures ever recorded. The region currently has 20 million food-insecure people and 5.8 million malnourished children.

South Africa has been facing drought, with crop losses of up to 60% this year. Farmers in the North West province stand to lose ZAR 4.8 billion. This is having an impact on the entire region of Southern Africa, since South Africa grows more than 40% of regional maize.

In Madagascar, the southern region is suffering a prolonged drought, while the north has been struggling with severe flooding. Drought in the south is leaving 200,000 people facing a serious food shortage, and the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that 80,000 people are in need of urgent food assistance.

These are examples of just some of the regions recently affected by drought; other countries include New Zealand, India, Mongolia, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Puerto Rico, Zimbabwe and Namibia.

What can be done?

It is clear from recent trends that drought is set to continue as one of the major threats to food security around the world. Even when droughts have passed there can be long-term impacts on agriculture as land becomes unfertile from the stress of drought and subsequent erosion. Farmers may then be forced to scale back or cannot afford to re-invest following yield decline and crop failures.

The question is how can we cope with this? Of course, we should be taking steps to tackle climate change, but what can be done within food systems to increase their resilience to drought?

The answer lies at both a systemic and a practical level. Water is often very cheap, or freely available, in many countries. There is a failure to value it properly, which leads to waste and over-use. In many places, big agriculture – which often uses water more intensively ­– takes precedence over small-scale, less economically productive farming. Water can also be used manipulatively to political and economic ends. In Palestine, for example, Israel’s control of water sources has restricted the development of Palestinian agriculture. This is where true cost accounting comes in. Water is essential for life and everyone should have a right to it; but pricing must be realistic and regulation must ensure it is fairly distributed between farming, domestic use and industry.

Industrial agriculture, for example, requires large amounts of water to grow irrigated crops – which are often inappropriate for the climate and soil quality – and to grow animal feed and provide water for intensive livestock production. In a true cost account, these farms should be charged more for water than a farm that employs water conserving practices and grows crops that are sustainable and suited to the environment. A grading system could be used to assess where a farm is positioned on a water sustainability scale, and the price imposed for water could be adjusted to reflect this.

Intensive agriculture supplying foreign markets is often a particular drain on water resources. Many regions appear to be growing inappropriate cash crops, but continue to do so because of the export demand. California, for example, grows around a million acres of almonds that suck up about a trillion gallons of water per year; 70% of the almond crop is exported, primarily to China. California also grows alfalfa to sell as feed to overseas dairies; alfalfa uses 15% of the state’s agricultural water. In Peru, the growth of asparagus for export to countries such as Britain has stoked controversy: one asparagus ‘mega-farm’ can use as much water as the entire city of Ica every day.

Reliance on the global market to export cash crops and import food for domestic consumption exacerbates drought by encouraging the growth of these inappropriate crops. If a key export region suffers from drought, the effect can be felt on a global scale as less food is available on the world market.

At a practical level, modern agriculture directly contributes to drought through wasteful and inefficient practices and infrastructure. In Peru, for example, only 8% of farmland uses water conservation systems such as drip irrigation. In the United States, half of irrigated cropland still relies on inefficient systems. This is a question of education, infrastructure and investment, and requires governments to prioritise the issue.

The importance of soil health

Soil degradation is another feature of modern agriculture linked to drought and water shortages. Large-scale continuous monoculture cropping, reliant on chemical fertilisers and pesticides, depletes the soil and reduces its ability to retain moisture. Nine million hectares of food-producing land is lost to soil degradation every year as well as 24 billion tonnes of fertile topsoil.

But there is a lot that can be done to improve soil and increase moisture. With better structure, and more organic matter, soils act more like a sponge, taking in and holding a much larger amount of water. Soils with higher organic matter also have better structure and are less prone to erosion from heavy rainfall – which can be common when rain does eventually fall in drought-affected regions. Even in some of the driest parts of the world, moisture can be retained in the soil using the right techniques. Geoff Lawton, a permaculture specialist, improved the moisture of soils in the Jordan desert using swales to capture water and mulch to build organic matter. Nitrogen fixing desert trees were used to provide shade and reduce wind evaporation and erosion, as well as adding free nitrogen to the soil. This process also reduced soil salinity, an increasing problem in irrigated cropland. Similar techniques are being used in other dry regions, such as in Kenya where the Hydrologic Corridor project hopes to reverse desertification caused by deforestation.

Crop rotation and mixed farming also help improve moisture in soils. The US Department of Agriculture advises farmers to use conservation tillage, rotate crops in ways that increase the amount of water that enters the soil, and shift to cropping systems that are less water dependent. The addition of livestock can add fertility to the soil, while diverse pastures that include nitrogen-fixing legumes also improve soil structure and moisture retention.

Other strategies for water-scarce farming

There have been attempts to create drought resistant crops, but while this work could prove essential in helping farmers cope, it should not be seen as a replacement for the vital management and systemic changes required to ensure a sustainable future. Some drought tolerant crops have been shown to increase yields in very dry years but they can also reduce them in moderately dry or average years, making this an unreliable technology given that weather prediction is unreliable.

Those who traditionally farm in dry conditions, African pastoralists, for example, have experience of living with dry spells that others could benefit from. They have coped with all but the most extreme drought by slaughtering the majority of their livestock, allowing them to focus their resources on sustaining a core breeding stock that can be used to re-build the herd when conditions improve. Mediterranean farmers have used ‘dry farming’ (where the only moisture comes from residual moisture in the soil) for thousands of years to grow grapes and olives. Dry farming was once also practiced in California and some people are now seeking out older farmers to re-learn these skills. It has even been claimed that dry farming produces a more nutrient-dense and flavourful crop.

There are many practical strategies that can be used to help adapt to drought, but farmers require better knowledge sharing as well as technical and financial assistance. If droughts continue to become more severe, technical solutions alone will not solve the problem. Ultimately, the solution is in our hands. We have to encourage politicians to give higher priority to climate change mitigation and to introduce true cost accounting into food systems policy to ensure that producers move towards more sustainable and appropriate farming practices. For too long now, market forces have pushed them into ever-more intensive and inappropriate forms of production.

Photograph: Danumurthi Mahendra

Megan Perry

Megan Perry has joined the ORFC team as joint Communications Manager for this year’s event. She also works as Communications Manager for the Sustainable Food Trust, a UK-based charity that works to accelerate the transition to more sustainable food systems. With a background in farming combined with an interest in international politics and social justice, Megan has worked on several campaigns and events, as well as being a keen researcher and writer when she gets time!

Tags: building resilient food systems, building resilient water systems, climate change, drought, drought mitigation strategies