Better farm water management can help to achieve UN Sustainable Development Goals

07/20/2017 - Water use for food production today largely occurs on the expense of ecosystems. About 40 percent of the water used for irrigation are unsustainable withdrawals that violate so-called environmental flows of rivers, a new study shows for the first time. If these volumes were to be re-allocated to the ecosystems, crop yields would drop by at least 10 percent on half of all irrigated land, especially in Central and South Asia. This points to a tradeoff between water and food UN Sustainable Development Goals. However, improvement of irrigation practices could sustainably compensate for such losses at global scale. More integrated strategies, including rainwater management, could even achieve a 10 percent net gain of production.
Better farm water management can help to achieve UN Sustainable Development Goals
Improved agricultural irrigation practices, including rainwater management, can both help to protect river ecosystems and increase global food production. Cutout from Fig. 2 of Jaegermeyr et al, NCC.

“Seemingly conflicting elements of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can be reconciled if addressed properly,” says Jonas Jägermeyr from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), lead-author of a team of scientists from institutions including the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and Wageningen University. “Agricultural production and water management are a key example, since food production will likely double in the future while the water cycle will regionally be disturbed by climate change.” The study in the journal Nature Communications provides new quantitative evidence that negative environmental effects can be avoided while maintaining food production at global level. Much of this potential can be realized through traditional and affordable farmers’ practices accessible for smallholders.

Just recently, this topic has been emphasized at the highest political level by the leaders of the world’s greatest economies, the G20. Their Hamburg Declaration states: “In order to achieve food security, we are committed to increase agricultural productivity and resilience in a sustainable manner, while aiming to protect, manage and use efficiently water and water-related ecosystems.” The SDGs are also the basis for Germany’s sustainability strategy.

“Our study details how such visions could start to fall into place without relying on future technology fixes,” Dieter Gerten from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research says. “We can start now, mainstreaming traditional measures with sizeable effects.”

Article: Jägermeyr, J., Pastor, A., Biemans, H. and Gerten, D. (2017): Reconciling irrigated food production with environmental flows for Sustainable Development Goals implementation. Nature Communications [COI:10.1038/ncomms15900].

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