Irrigation Efficiency Key to Meeting Asia’s Growing Food Demands

Article | 20 January 2016

Across Asia and the Pacific, farmers every day wrestle with a huge challenge—how to meet the growing demand for food in the face of tightening land, water and environmental constraints.

Water is a particular problem. Agriculture accounts for the bulk of the region’s water resources—about 80% on average. But aging infrastructure, inefficient institutions and poor water management result in low productivity and inefficient use of water for food production.

“As the region’s economies develop further, the demands on water can only increase,” said Yasmin Siddiqi, a water resources specialist at ADB. “Over the next few decades irrigation in Asia will require a huge transformation to enable it to meet the needs for food, income, and jobs of the region’s swelling populations.”

More crop per drop

By 2050 more than 60% of the region’s population is predicted to be living in cities. As populations prosper, diets will become more meat-based, requiring more water for production—up to 6 times more in the case of a kilogram of meat versus a kilogram of rice. 

Urban and peri-urban agriculture is expanding to meet the growing demands for food in cities, but the sector must compete with industry and municipalities for water and land resources as well as facing increased impacts on water pollution. Asia is also one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change impacts, which will add further pressures to finite water resources.

Food production consumes significant amounts of water, ranging between 5,000 and 10,000 cubic meters per hectare per season – or more.

“Over the next few decades irrigation in Asia will require a huge transformation to enable it to meet the needs for food, income, and jobs of the region’s swelling populations.”

Yasmin Siddiqi, ADB Principal Water Resources Specialist

According to researchers, agriculture will need to produce 60% more food globally by 2050, and 100% more in developing countries using the same finite water resources.

The challenge to grow more food with less requires an increase in water productivity,” added Ms. Siddiqi. “Improving water productivity to produce more crop per drop is increasingly essential to meet competing demands for water from other users."

While there are examples of small-scale technology successes within the region such as solar irrigation pumps used in Karnataka state, India, these remain isolated examples. For improved water productivity, innovations like the use of remote sensing and precision laser land levelling have been inconsistent.

There is growing consensus about what needs to happen. There needs to be a great deal of new investment in the rehabilitation, modernization, and restructuring of large surface irrigation schemes to make them more productive and more efficient in their use of scarcer water.  Management and accountability needs to be improved at all levels of the irrigation service chain.

ADB is to double its annual climate change financing to $6 billion by 2020. Of this, $2 billion is to be utilized for more resilient infrastructure, climate-smart agriculture, and better preparation for climate-related disasters. This provides ample opportunity within the irrigation subsector to increase financing for climate adaptation.

Forum to address irrigation challenges

The challenges surrounding irrigation, and the possible new approaches to addressing them, will be under discussion at ADB's headquarters when experts from around the region gather for the 2nd Asian Irrigation Forum on 20-22 January. Participating will be irrigation experts and stakeholders including representatives from member countries, civil society, private sector, and other development partners.

Sessions at the forum will explore regional perspectives of ADB and its developing member countries on the best strategies, financing, and focal areas of investment in irrigation. Participants will address how to modernize and adopt new processes to improve water productivity, the elements of good governance, as well as irrigation investments and innovative financing options.

The winners of a youth video competition who were asked to produce short videos of less than 3 minutes on the topic of “Who’s Growing Asia’s Food?” will also be presented.

The forum is organized in cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and the International Water Management Institute, and the Australian Water Partnership. 

The first Asian Irrigation Forum in 2012 brought together stakeholders to share knowledge, best practices, and technological advancements; and identified future investment opportunities.

“Irrigation in Asia still faces limited resources, outdated system designs, institutional inefficiencies, and weak governance,” said Ms. Siddiqi. “There is also a need for more intricate understanding of the changing rural economy and for more novel and impactful solutions. These are some of the issues we aim to address in the 2nd Asian Irrigation Forum.”