Reclaiming the real value of water: Managing water in the agricultural sector

Dec. 1, 2013

A nuanced approach to policy-creation is necessary to address agricultural water demand.

When it comes to water consumption, agriculture is by far the most demanding, requiring 10 times more than what is used for personal human consumption. As much as two thirds of the water we obtain from ground sources and rivers goes into irrigation; of what remains, a mere 10 percent is used for domestic applications while the rest goes into industry. Today, roughly 3,600 km3 (2236.9 m3) of freshwater is extracted for human use.

About 90 percent of the water that is obtained for domestic use is returned to aquifers and rivers as wastewater. Industries generally consume only a small portion (about 5 percent) of the water they extract.

OECD formed to educate

The organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) was formed to educate and promote policies that help to improve the economic and social well-being of the world’s inhabitants. The OECD posits that acknowledgement of the intricacies and range of water resource management in the agricultural realm is essential from a policy perspective because there simply can be “no one-size-fits-all” solution to cultivating viable solutions for acquisition, treatment, distribution and recycling.

Policies, procedures and guidelines regarding water resource management must be targeted to specific regions and situations.

  • Heterogeneity of resources, such as desalinated water, groundwater or recycled wastewater
  • Associations between water source quality and quantity
  • Distribution of resources between consumptive types, such as domestic use, agricultural use, industrial, environmental necessities and power production
  • Management of complex institutional and proprietary claims associated with water.

A transition in water resource policies with a bigger emphasis on demand, rather than supply and supply management, is slowly bringing transformation to institutional and proprietary ownership structures in many places around the world. Nevertheless, evolvement and direction is scattered and convoluted at best, leaving a need for a cross cultural policy reform that meets international standards.

Improving transparency and accountability

There are often a multitude of institutions that are involved in the management, allocation and regulation of water at varying levels of government and continual restructuring of institutional organizations may improve transparency as well as accountability. Since water is most often allocated according to quantity rather than price, there presents, as a result, an intricate set of complex legal rules and regulations, which don’t necessarily address supply and demand with adequate flexibility and objectivity. As environmental demands increase, the pressure to distribute water with optimal care and equality according to necessity becomes more important, thus a need for more care where water rights exists to ensure a more economically efficient and environmentally effective allocation of water resources.

In addition to that, it is also necessary to explore creative water market solutions as allocating mechanisms. At a minimum, there is the need to ensure that supply costs are covered for agricultural endeavors. One very valuable efficiency measure is to achieve multiple use of water, including using processed domestic wastewater for agricultural irrigation and nutrient recovery. 

An analysis by OECD shows that rates for water supply have been increasing in most countries. Nevertheless, a significant number of countries continue to grant water supply to farmers who are only covering the cost of operation and maintenance and there is little or no recovery of the investment costs for water supply infrastructure.

Studies show that in countries where water prices have been raised, there is evidence that indicates that water use efficiency has increased and that there has been no reduction in output. However, water rates almost never reflect actual scarcity of water, social values or environmental costs and benefits.

These measures are typically addressed by other policy measures, which might include agricultural-environmental charges, pollution taxes and water allocation methods. These measures do not, however, address scarcity value. Nonetheless, some regions are utilizing the “full cost recovery” principle to manage their sustainable water policies.

Trading of water entitlements could provide a scarcity market price and result in the most optimal value use of resources. Policies that speak to on-farm water resources, specifically groundwater, generally involve licensure or other mechanisms of control, but because of the prohibitive costs of enforcing compliance, the degradation and illegal pumping of groundwater continues to be a problem.

A need to improve enforcement of regulatory measures

To reach a status of sustainable groundwater use, much more effort and attention will be needed to develop and enforce regulatory measures, improve mechanisms for volumetric management and implementation of cost benefit and taxation, most especially where water resource stress is severe.

A lengthy report by the OECD takes a close look at the policy situations of various countries and proposes the following measures:

  • Recognize the complexity and diversity of managing water resources in agriculture
  • Strengthen institutions and property rights for water management in agriculture
  • Ensure charges for water supplied to agriculture at least reflect full supply costs
  • Improve policy integration between agriculture, water, energy and environment policies
  • Enhance agriculture’s resilience to climate change and climate variability impacts
  • Address knowledge and information deficiencies to better guide water resource management.

Over the last 50 years, global food production has increased considerably, providing more food per capita at progressively lower costs. This has been made possible through a variety of methods, including irrigation. As the world population continues to grow, more food and livestock will need to be produced and the world’s water resources will need to sustain in accordance. Without significant changes in the way we address these issues, the outcome looks rather bleak. 

Alan Kahn is a sustainability enthusiast and contributing freelance writer for WATEC Israel – Water Management Conference 2013. Alan covers water technology, wastewater management and other topics for Israel’s biggest water technology conference, which was held in Tel Aviv on Oct. 22, 2013.

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