Water Depletion Threatens Agriculture
Tuesday, 16 December 2014: 4:30 PM
Irrigated agriculture is the human activity that has by far the largest impact on water, constituting 85% of global water consumption and 67% of global water withdrawals. Much of this water use occurs in places where water depletion, the ratio of water consumption to water availability, exceeds 75% for at least one month of the year. Although only 17% of global watershed area experiences depletion at this level or more, nearly 30% of total cropland and 60% of irrigated cropland are found in these depleted watersheds. Staple crops are particularly at risk, with 75% of global irrigated wheat production and 65% of irrigated maize production found in watersheds that are at least seasonally depleted. Of importance to textile production, 75% of cotton production occurs in the same watersheds. For crop production in depleted watersheds, we find that one half to two-thirds of production occurs in watersheds that have not just seasonal but annual water shortages, suggesting that re-distributing water supply over the course of the year cannot be an effective solution to shortage. We explore the degree to which irrigated production in depleted watersheds reflects limitations in supply, a byproduct of the need for irrigation in perennially or seasonally dry landscapes, and identify heavy irrigation consumption that leads to watershed depletion in more humid climates. For watersheds that are not depleted, we evaluate the potential impact of an increase in irrigated production. Finally, we evaluate the benefits of irrigated agriculture in depleted and non-depleted watersheds, quantifying the fraction of irrigated production going to food production, animal feed, and biofuels.