Water use in agriculture

Farming accounts for around 70% of water used in the world today and also contributes to water pollution from excess nutrients, pesticides and other pollutants. But the competition for water is increasing and the costs of water pollution can be high.   

Increased pressure from urbanisation, industrialisation and climate change will provide agriculture with more competition for water resources and climate change could affect water supply and agriculture through changes in the seasonal timing of rainfall and snow pack melt, as well as higher incidence and severity of floods and droughts.

Sustainable management of water in agriculture is critical to increase agricultural production, ensure water can be shared with other users and maintain the environmental and social benefits of water systems. Governments need to improve the economic efficiency and environmental effectiveness of policies that seek to improve water resource use efficiency and reduce water pollution from agricultural systems.

Managing water sustainably is key to the future of food and agriculture! OECD

What should governments do to confront water issues?

The challenges that lie ahead are both extremely complex and locally diverse. It will be important for policymakers to focus on efforts that increase the overall efficiency of water use by the agricultural sector, reduce the sector’s impact on freshwater resources, and improve its resilience to water risks. To this end, the OECD advocates for multiple policy responses at different levels, each adapted to specific water resource systems.

In order to facilitate a transition to a more sustainable and productive agricultural sector that is resilient to water risks, governments should act at the farm, watershed and national levels to (1) strengthen and enforce existing water regulations, (2) create incentives for farmers to improve their water use and better manage the use of polluting agricultural inputs; and (3) remove policies that support excessive use of water and polluting activities.

To assist policy makers in addressing this challenge, OECD analysis and indicators contribute to formulating policy responses and facilitating their implementation to move agriculture towards the sustainable management of water. OECD's work on agriculture and water is also highlighted in the 2016 OECD Council Recommendation on Water.

The OECD also supported efforts in the G20 by Agriculture Ministers to adopt a declaration and action plan entitled “Towards food and water security: Fostering sustainability, advancing innovation”, which includes a number of significant commitments to improve agriculture’s water use, limit its impact on water quality, and reduce its exposure to water risks.

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