Sound policies for food security and agricultural water management are critical for national economies – and particularly for dryland areas, where water resources are already scarce. The International Conference: Policies for Water and Food Security in the Dry Areas, held in Cairo this week, examines the effectiveness of water and food policy options, and identifies strategies to enhance land and water productivity. IWMI research is helping inform the debate.

picking the seeds from freshly harvested cotton
Farmers (left to right) Nigna Latifa (26), Dadjan Wassinatou (34) and Nacro Rainatou (31) pick the seeds from freshly harvested cotton, under a tree in the village of Zorro, Burkina Faso.
Photo by Ollivier Girard/ CIFOR

Six years ago, food prices spiked dramatically worldwide. In some countries sharp price rises of some staples are believed to have galvanized public discontent causing instability and social unrest. Several commentators have linked the events of the Arab Spring to soaring wheat costs, which hit poor families hard.

The crisis was yet another reminder of how current agricultural production systems are becoming increasingly volatile. Competition for cropland from biofuels, high oil prices, speculation in grain markets, restrictions on grain exports plus extreme weather events may all have played a role. But, there is an underlying element missing from this list: the declining productivity of our agricultural production systems caused by degradation of land and water quality.

As populations increase and diets change, rehabilitating degraded land and water resources will be critical to meet future global food demand. This is especially true if we want to maintain the natural systems on which agriculture depends. Simply taking over more land for agriculture could have disastrous long term consequences for vital planetary ecosystems.

These issues are most acute in resource-poor countries in the drier regions of the world, where the demands on limited water resources from agriculture and economic development are increasing.


IWMI at the Policies for Water and Food Security Conference

Jeremy Bird at International Conference on Policies for water and food security in dry areas
Cairo, Egypt. 24 June 2013. The first panel of the conference focused on the theme of Incentives for Sustainable & Efficient Water Allocation and Management. Jeremy Bird, DG of the international Water Management Institute reflected on the diversity of solutions that had been presented in the earlier sessions and stressed the multiple considerations that need to be factored into designing of incentives – it is not just about bio-physical factors or economics, but must also consider the social, cultural and most importantly, the political dimensions. In some cases the quest for optimal economic outcomes has delayed the adoption of a second-best but more politically acceptable solution. He cited examples from IWMIs research over the past 20 years including cases in India and Ghana where challenging conventional thinking has resulted in a change in policy response from the government and highlighted the importance of looking at the interconnectivities of water use within a basin perspective, not just at farm scale. What may be a increase in water efficiency to one farmer may be a loss of seepage and groundwater supply to another.


Opportunity knocks

The good news is that there is still slack in the system. Natural resources in dry areas may be limited, but when used efficiently, agricultural productivity can be dramatically improved without undermining natural systems. Evidence comes from research undertaken by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). A team of scientists looked at the ways in which some dryland communities were already adapting to limited resources and concluded that the potential for more widespread sustainable farming was huge.

The researchers looked at three examples of low productivity soils in dry regions: those affected by high levels of magnesium, sandy soils with low water-holding capacity and abandoned salt-affected soils. They studied the interventions that were introduced to tackle low productivity and found that simple, cost effective treatments could make a huge difference. For instance application of calcium-supplying phosphogypsum to soils with high-magnesium content had a marked effect on how productive the soil was. Adding clay to degraded sandy soils helped bind then together and hold more water whilst increasing yields.

For instance, by applying phosphogypsum to soils with high magnesium content more than 200 litres of water could be saved for each kilogram of cotton produced; that’s roughly twice the amount of water used in a typical domestic shower – an amount not insignificant in dry regions.

“Clearly there is a need to rethink the way agriculture is undertaken”, says IWMI researcher Andrew Noble. “This study has shown that it is possible to squeeze more productivity out of existing farmland in dry areas without further damaging the environment. That will make our agricultural systems much more sustainable. But society as whole needs to be a part of this process. That may mean, for instance, creating incentives for farmers to act as custodians and caretakers of natural systems, rather than encouraging production at any cost.”


Farmers cannot be left on their own

Although these interventions are an important first step to improve the productivity of degraded land, more investment and policy reform are needed to achieve long term sustainability. Farmers cannot tackle the huge task of rehabilitating and managing soils and water on their own. Thus, the researchers argue, supportive policies and functional institutions at the national level would be needed to capitalize on the potential for improving agricultural and water productivity.

“Adequate policies at the national level are important, but to address the long-term management and sustainability of water and land resources farmer and water-user associations should also get involved”, says Noble. “This would drive community-based management and create a sense of ownership among farmers.”

Qadir, Manzoor; Noble, Andrew; Chartres, Colin. 2013. Adapting to climate change by improving water productivity of soils in dry areas. Land Degradation and Development, 24(1):12-21. doi:



  1. really we need to rethink our agricultural systems so as to copy with the climate changes .
    Also i think even the field of meteorology need to play a vital role as well taking into consideration the agricultural growing seasons especially in the southern regions in Africa .In these regions it can be noticed that seasons have changed but the community and farmers as well are still involved in the past. So with this in mind i think for our agriculture to be sustainable these issues of seasons should be addressed as well. I am a student in my second year at midlandss state university studying Land and water resources management innocent dick sande is my name keep me posted

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