Global Irrigated Area At Record Levels, But Expansion Slowing

In 2009, the most recent year for which global data are available from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 311 million hectares in the world was equipped for irrigation but only 84% of that area was actually being irrigated, according to new research conducted by the Worldwatch Institute for its Vital Signs Online service. As of 2010, the countries with the largest irrigated areas were India (39 million hectares), China (19 million), and the U.S. (17 million), writes report author Judith Renner.

The irrigation sector claims about 70% of the freshwater withdrawals worldwide. Irrigation can offer crop yields that are two to four times greater than is possible with rainfed farming, and it currently provides 40% of the world’s food from approximately 20% of all agricultural land.

Since the late 1970s, irrigation expansion has experienced a marked slowdown. The FAO attributes the decline in investment to the unsatisfactory performances of formal large canal systems, corruption in the construction process, and acknowledgement of the environmental impact of irrigation projects.

The increasing availability of inexpensive individual pumps and well construction methods has led to a shift from public to private investment in irrigation, and from larger to smaller-scale systems. The takeoff in individual groundwater irrigation has been concentrated in India, China, and much of Southeast Asia. The idea of affordable and effective irrigation is attractive to poor farmers worldwide, with rewards of higher outputs and incomes and better diets.

“The option is often made even more appealing with offers of government subsidies for energy costs of running groundwater pumps and support prices of irrigated products,” said Renner, a senior at Fordham University in New York. “In India’s Gujarat state, for example, energy subsidies are structured so that farmers pay a flat rate, no matter how much electricity they use. But with rising numbers of farmers tapping groundwater resources, more and more aquifers are in danger of overuse.”

If groundwater resources are overexploited, aquifers will be unable to recharge fast enough to keep pace with water withdrawals. It should be noted that not all aquifers are being pumped at unsustainable levels – in fact, 80% of aquifers worldwide could handle additional water withdrawals. One troubling aspect of groundwater withdrawals is that the world’s major agricultural producers (particularly India, China, and the U.S.) are also the ones responsible for the highest levels of depletion.

Another problem with pumping water from aquifers and redirecting flows for irrigation is the impact on delicate environmental balances. Salinization occurs when water moves past plant roots to the water table due to inefficient irrigation and drainage systems; as the water table rises, it brings salts to the base of plant roots.Plants take in the water, and the salts are left behind, degrading soil quality and therefore the potential for growth.

A potentially better alternative is drip irrigation, a form of micro-irrigation that waters plants slowly and in small amounts either on the soil surface or directly on roots. Using these techniques has the potential to reduce water use by as much as 70% while increasing output by 20-90%. Within the last two decades, the area irrigated using drip and other micro-irrigation methods has increased 6.4-fold, from 1.6 million hectares to over 10.3 million hectares.

With predictions of a global population exceeding 9 billion by 2050, demand for higher agricultural output will put more strain on already fragile water reserves. Even without the effects of climate change, water withdrawals for irrigation will need to rise by 11% in the next three decades to meet crop production demands. Reconciling increasing food demands with decreasing water security requires efficient systems that produce more food with less water and that minimize water waste. Intelligent water management is crucial especially in the face of climate change, which will force the agriculture industry to compete with the environment for water.

Further highlights from the report:

  • The share of the area equipped for irrigation that is actually under irrigation ranges from 77 to 87% in Asia, Africa, the Americas, and in Oceania, but is only 59% in Europe. More reliable rainfall allows farmers in northern and eastern Europe to rely less on existing irrigation infrastructure than is the case in drier or more variable climates.
  • Worldwide, the most commonly used irrigation technique is flood irrigation, even though plants often use only about half the amount of water applied in that system.
  • India claims the lead in irrigated area worldwide, irrigating almost 2 million hectares of its land using drip and micro-irrigation techniques.

Leave a Reply

Management Stories

ManagementTechnology and agriculture: a Futurist’s Perspective
July 30, 2015
Futurist David Zach, speaking at this week’s InfoAg Conference in St. Louis, shared thoughts on the benefits and limitations of Read More
StewardshipOhio Water Quality Project To Determine How Much Phosphorus Is Leaving Fields
July 27, 2015
Researchers with the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University are looking for farmers in Read More
ManagementFCI Trade Summit Update & Precision Tank Turns 50
July 23, 2015
Editors Dave Frabotta and Eric Sfiligoj discuss the upcoming FCI Trade Summit in Las Vegas, NV, and how Precision Tank Read More
ManagementUpdates On UAV Rules & Crop Conditions
July 16, 2015
CropLife’s Paul Schrimpf and Eric Sfiligoj provide updates on the ongoing UAV regulations debate and how the nation’s crops are Read More
Top 100 Articles
CropLife 100Allied Ag Distributors Adds Four New Owners
July 30, 2015
Aligned Ag Distributors LLC has announced the addition of four new customer/owners to Franklin Holding Co. LLC. They are: The Read More
CropLife 100Pinnacle Purchases California-Based Specialty Crops Retailer
July 20, 2015
Pinnacle Agriculture Holdings has successfully acquired California-based NH3 Service Co.  Operating as part of Pinnacle’s Performance Agriculture brand, the new locations Read More
Asmus Farm Supply liquid fertilizer facility features 20,000 square feet
CropLife 100Slideshow: Asmus Farm Supply Shows Off Its New Liquid Fertilizer Facility
July 15, 2015
Asmus Farm Supply, Rake, IA, recently added a new liquid fertilizer facility to its company operations. The new liquid fertilizer Read More
CropLife 100Wilbur-Ellis Feed Division Facilities Receive Safe Feed/Safe Food Certification
July 13, 2015
Wilbur-Ellis Co.’s Feed Division, a marketer and distributor of value-added feed ingredients for the aquaculture, livestock and pet food industries Read More
CropLife 100BRANDT Expands To Brazil With Acquisition
July 8, 2015
BRANDT has acquired a majority interest in Target Brasil Fertilizantes Ltda. through its Brazilian subsidiary. Target Brasil manufactures, distributes and Read More
Milan Kucerak, president/CEO, West Central
CropLife 100West Central Cooperative And Its New President Are A Match Made In Deviation
June 29, 2015
To appreciate just how unique West Central Cooperative is in the world of ag retail, an observer need only consider Read More
Latest News
CropLife 100Allied Ag Distributors Adds Four New Owners
July 30, 2015
Aligned Ag Distributors LLC has announced the addition of four new customer/owners to Franklin Holding Co. LLC. They are: The Read More
FungicidesReport: Sudden Death Syndrome Symptoms Appearing In Soy…
July 30, 2015
Last week, symptoms of sudden death syndrome (SDS) began to appear in April 15-planted soybeans at the University of Illinois’s Read More
Seed/BiotechAdvanta Seeds Adds New Phoenix Corn Hybrids
July 30, 2015
Corn growers in the High Plains and Western states have new options available for the 2016 growing season from Advanta Read More
ManagementTechnology and agriculture: a Futurist’s Perspective
July 30, 2015
Futurist David Zach, speaking at this week’s InfoAg Conference in St. Louis, shared thoughts on the benefits and limitations of Read More
Biofuels Plant in Lousiana
Industry NewsIdle Biofuels Plant In Louisiana To Reopen As Ammonia F…
July 30, 2015
A Lithuania-based company plans to spend $265 million to reopen an idle biofuels refinery in Grant Parish as an ammonia Read More
FFA at Monsanto Booth at the 2015 National Farm Machinery Show
Industry NewsFive Students Receive The 2015 Monty’s Plant Food Compa…
July 29, 2015
This fall, five college-bound students will have financial support through the Monty’s Plant Food Company FFA Scholarship. All five scholarship Read More
GYPSOIL Blendable Pellets
Crop InputsBeneficial Reuse Management Launches Pelletized Gypsum …
July 29, 2015
Beneficial Reuse Management (BRM) announced this week at Ag Media Summit that its GYPSOIL Pelletized Products Division will open a Read More
StewardshipOhio Water Quality Project To Determine How Much Phosph…
July 27, 2015
Researchers with the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University are looking for farmers in Read More
FertilizerKoch Agronomic Services Launches N-TEGRATION Technology
July 27, 2015
Koch Agronomic Services, LLC (KAS) has launched  N-TEGRATION Technology, a process technology platform designed to enable production of enhanced efficiency fertilizers at Read More
HerbicidesExpert: IARC Herbicide Classifications Leading To Confu…
July 24, 2015
Few people in the crop protection industry had heard of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) before this Read More
ManagementFCI Trade Summit Update & Precision Tank Turns 50
July 23, 2015
Editors Dave Frabotta and Eric Sfiligoj discuss the upcoming FCI Trade Summit in Las Vegas, NV, and how Precision Tank Read More
Palmer pigweed seedhead in cotton
HerbicidesUSDA Deregulates Dow AgroSciences’ Enlist Cotton Trait
July 23, 2015
The USDA today issued its decision deregulating Dow AgroSciences’ Enlist cotton trait in the U.S. The USDA has now completed its Read More
Industry NewsVerdesian Life Sciences Showcases Versatile Product Por…
July 23, 2015
Technology has revolutionized agriculture by bringing farmers, retailers and distributors to the forefront of the digital age. To meet the Read More
FertilizerWSJ: Cf Industries Exploring Merger With Dutch Chemical…
July 23, 2015
U.S. fertilizer maker CF Industries is in advanced merger talks with Amsterdam-listed chemical company OCI NV, the Wall Street Journal Read More
HerbicidesNufarm Releases New Panther SC Herbicide
July 23, 2015
Nufarm has announced the availability of new Panther SC herbicide. Panther SC is the first liquid formulation of flumioxazin available Read More
EquipmentFarmLink Launches Farm Equipment Sharing Program
July 23, 2015
FarmLink has introduced a new online farm equipment sharing community – MachineryLink Sharing – leveraging this new economy business model Read More
HerbicidesCould The South’s Most Troublesome Weed Represent A Thr…
July 22, 2015
Palmer amaranth is undoubtedly the most troublesome weed in the southern United States, taking a devastating toll on both cotton Read More
Industry NewsH.J. Baker Hires New Director Of International Sales
July 22, 2015
Global Agriculture firm H.J. Baker announced today that Steve Langley has joined the company’s Crop Performance Division and Animal Health Read More