By Ranu Sinha

The Global Framework on Water Scarcity in Agriculture (WASAG), launched in 2016, is designed to bring together institutions across the globe to tackle the challenge of water use in agriculture in order to ensure food security for all. WASAG, coordinated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), consists of several thematic working groups. The WASAG Working Group on Agricultural Water Use (led by the International Water Management Institute, IWMI) organized a workshop co-hosted by the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Bari (CIHEAM) and the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE). The workshop took place at the CIHEAM-Bari campus in Valenzano, Italy on 25 – 26 February 2020, days before Italy went into complete lockdown due to the SARS-COV2 pandemic.

The workshop focused on the key question, “Can Water Productivity Improvements Save Us from Global Water Scarcity?”, by bringing together over 30 experts from governments, international organizations, development finance institutions, academia, and practice. The University of Oxford was one of the invited attendees. The main focus of the workshop was (1) to share knowledge about successful examples of improving water productivity in the field and its implications on water scarcity, and (2) to discuss what is necessary to create an enabling environment and policy changes to scale these interventions as a basis for effective policy recommendations. One of the key outputs of the workshop was to develop the main messages for the G20 meeting, which was to be held in Saudi Arabia in mid-March but was instead held virtually on 26 March 2020 to discuss the global coronavirus outbreak.

During these two days, it emerged that one of the main obstacles to raising water productivity is that “water productivity” terminology is complex and challenging, it often generates confusion – as researchers, policymakers, and farmers interpret this in diverse ways. Simultaneously, key stakeholders in the agricultural value chain (farmers, policy makers, buyers, regulators, etc.) are not concerned or focused on water productivity but the outputs of crop production, such as income generation and food self-sufficiency. There was thus common consensus among all gathered that water productivity in agriculture is not a silver bullet and not necessarily an end goal onto itself! Yet, the challenge that lies before us is to deliver sustainable food production for increasing populations facing extreme climate uncertainties while simultaneously enhancing the efficiency of water use in agriculture, particularly in water scarce regions.

To drive this home, the group concluded that critical action is needed at all scales (farm, river basin, state and national) to achieve more efficient agriculture water management. One of the core messages for the G20 on behalf of WASAG was that: “Sustainable water management is indispensable for climate-resilient growth and environmental integrity”. While agriculture is responsible for about 70 percent of global water withdrawals, “agriculture will be part of the solution to solving the global water scarcity challenge” (WASAG G20 Policy Note, 2020).

The group came to a consensus that there are six key steps that governments can take to tackle global water scarcity and achieve sustainable water management. These are related to 1) assessing national water accounts and considering the impact of future changes to water quantity and quality in the present as well as the future, 2) identifying and setting limits on water use (current and future) at the basin-scale with appropriate allocations for agriculture water use in the context of water use in the industrial, energy, domestic, and other sectors, 3) setting targets for productivity from agricultural water use that are context-specific, taking into account hydrological changes due to climate change, as well as socio-cultural and economic needs, 4) designing interventions from a systems perspective – understanding the impacts and outcomes of interventions will need to be embedded within sectors outside water and food and involve actors outside the water space, 5) not one policy instrument will work but multiple policy measures that include multiple decision-makers and actors across multiple policy domains will be needed – building synergies and managing trade-offs, and, 6) in a changing climate with evolving water supply and demand, boundaries and targets need to be continuously evaluated and, whenever necessary, adjusted accordingly. These messages have been summarized and shared with G20 representatives. The core moderators of the WASAG working group will produce a white paper summarizing these and other perspectives, to be published later this year.