Around the world, 1.2bn people live in areas where agriculture is severely affected by water shortages and scarcity, and nearly half of them live in South Asia, a recent UN report said.
In South Asia, around 520m people live in areas of high water scarcity; in East and Southeast Asia the number is about 460m. In Central Asia, North Africa and West Asia, about 20% of the population live in agricultural areas with very high water shortages or scarcity.
The State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA) is one of the flagship publications produced by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. This year, the report focused on how water shortages and scarcity are affecting agriculture and food production, highlighting that “persistent and severe droughts, exacerbated by climate change, are causing increasingly serious water shortages in rainfed agriculture.”
The report differentiated between water scarcity (the imbalance between supply and demand for freshwater resources) and water shortages (reflected in drought frequency inadequate rainfall patterns). Globally, available freshwater per person has declined by more than 20% over the past 20 years.
Central Asia is at greatest risk
The report also highlighted Central Asia as a particular problem area. The region faces recurring agricultural drought on more than half of its low input rainfed cropland and almost all of its irrigated areas are under high or very high water stress.
Central Asia has the highest levels of total water withdrawals per capita, reaching almost 2,000 cubic metres per person in 2017. In comparison, this was less than 130 cubic metres in sub-Saharan Africa.
Agriculture must adapt
The report also pointed out that agriculture practices must adapt to the existing inequities that have been exacerbated by climate change. As populations increase and diets change, agriculture’s demand for water is growing.
“In Asia,” the report said, “declining large-scale state-funded surface irrigation has led to farmers tapping directly into groundwater, placing excessive pressure on the resource.”
Countries in South Asia irrigate and use modern methods on about half of the region’s cropland; most irrigated areas are highly water stressed. The report emphasised that small-scale farmers and rural populations without access to modern methods of irrigation will be most at risk of scarcity in the coming years. A