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Water crisis and agriculture

March 14, 2010

By Ernesto Ordoñez

MANILA, Philippines — The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF’s report titled “Water for Life, Making It Happen” states that “lack of drinking water and sanitation kill about 4,500 children a day and sentence their siblings, parents and neighbors to sickness, squalor and enduring poverty.”

Here are some of the findings on the return on investment (RoI) used in the broad sense for investing in drinking water and sanitation (from a World Health Organization study):

Health care savings of $7 billion a year for health agencies and $340 million for individuals

• 320 million productive days gained each year in the 15-59 age group, an extra 272 million school attendance days a year, and an added 1.5 billion healthy days for children under 5 years old, together attendance productivity gains of $9.9 billion a year

• Time savings from more convenient drinking water and sanitation services reach 20 billion working days a year, giving a productivity payback of some $63 billion a year

• Value of deaths averted, based on discounted future earnings, amounting to $3.6 billion a year.

The WHO study from which these figures are taken shows a total payback of $84 billion a year from $11.3 billion a year on investments needed to meet the United Nations Millennium Development Goals’ drinking water and sanitation target. It also shows some remarkable additional returns if simple household water treatment accompanies the drinking water and sanitation improvements.

The same report gives the following statistics: “In 2002, there were 2.6 billion people without even the most basic sanitation facilities. Providing improved sanitation for an additional 1.8 billion from 2002 to 2015 will achieve the MDG target to halve the proportion unserved by 2015. But, because of rising population, there will be 1.8 billion people having to cope with unhygienic sanitation facilities at that time.”


Another study called “Coping with Water Scarcity, UN Thematic Initiatives” states the following:

Today, agriculture accounts for 70 percent of all water used globally, up to 95 percent in several developing countries. To keep pace with the growing demand for food, it is estimated that 14 percent more freshwater will need to be withdrawn for agricultural purposes in the next 30 years.

Adding to the pressures on agricultural use is the increased awareness of the instrumental value of water in maintaining environmental services and ecosystem resilience. Increasing the efficiency of water use and enhancing agricultural water productivity at all levels in the production chains is becoming a priority in a rapidly growing number of countries. A systematic approach to agricultural water productivity requires actions at all levels, from crops to irrigation schemes, and up to national and international economic systems, including the trade in agricultural products.

It calls for an informed discussion on the scope for improved water productivity to ameliorate inter-sectoral competition for water resources and optimize social and economic outcomes.

Needed action

Our government should allocate more funds to address these issues. The agriculture sector can help this problem in a major way.

Falling underground levels, effluent from intensive animal husbandry, and watershed degradation are but a few issues that agriculture should address.

Since agriculture is the world’s largest user of water, this sector, both private and government, should work together to manage the problem by the use of appropriate technology to increase agricultural productivity using less water. This can be in the areas of irrigation, crop management systems and development of plant varieties that consume less water.

According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), demand for water will exceed availability by 56 percent and two-thirds of the world’s population will face water stress. The UNEP further states that “This calls for major investments in infrastructure and management and political will. The private sector is finding out that more and more water-related costs are rising, both direct and indirect.”

One method that uses much less water for rice is the system for rice intensification (SRI). This received less than P2 million in Department of Agriculture subsidy last year, as compared to more than P600 million in subsidy for water intensive rice production program. (For more information on this, please call or send a text message to Robert Verzola at +63921 2505520.)


The water problem is critical, affecting all aspects of our lives, including economic and social.

While there have been national water conferences in the past, the agriculture sector did not meet as a group to prepare for these conferences. Since it is the most significant sector in the water crisis, it is recommended that agriculture take the lead by calling its own “Water Crisis in Agriculture Conference.” After this, they can then ask for a national multi-sector conference where agriculture will be well prepared to help address the water crisis. This month, we hope to have discussions on this with the government and private sector.

The author is chairman of Agriwatch. For inquiries and suggestions, e-mail or call or fax +632 8522112.

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