Sustainability & Social Involvement / February 21, 2020

Water Scarcity in Latin America: What Can Be Done?

Water scarcity is one of the most serious global challenges of our time. More than a billion people currently live within water scarce regions of the World and as many as 3.5 billion could face water scarcity by 2025 due to climate change, with dire implications for food security.

Agriculture is a major contributor to this problem. Agriculture uses 70% of the world’s freshwater supplies, and water is crucial to global food production. Over 40% of the extra food produced over the last 50 years has come from irrigated land, which has doubled in area in the same time period.

This overuse of water resources has led to severe consequences. Drought has impacted crop production in many parts of the world in recent years, including Latin America and some of the poorest countries within Central America’s so called ‘Dry corridor’. This region includes large parts of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua where many of the 2.2 million inhabitants are dependent on subsistence agriculture.

Over the last 5 years erratic weather patterns in the region including prolonged dry spells have devastated corn and bean crops, and this is driving food insecurity and migration from the region. In 2018, drought in El Salvador ruined 20,303 hectares of land that produced 2.1 million quintals of corn, which represented 13.35% of the expected production in the first sowing.

It is not only Central American farmers under threat. From 2014-2017, Brazil suffered its worst drought in 80 years, which significantly impacted on crop production. The northeastern regions have lost BRL 104 billion due to drought conditions since 2012. In addition, rapid economic development, urbanization and a growing Latin American middle class are creating more competition between industry, farms, and citizens for limited water supplies.

How can farmers adapt to water scarcity? One strategy is to make the better use of existing supplies. Sustainable intensification of farming practices can help to make more efficient use of water resources, provided that it is adapted to local climatic variations and circumstances. Better use of data, planning and precision irrigation technology can help to make more efficient use of water supplies.

Likewise, genetic improvement and biotechnology can provide farmers with more drought tolerant crop varieties. Other strategies include minimizing water evaporation and promoting practices which increase organic matter content in the soil, such as minimizing soil disturbances and conservation agriculture. Forest and ecosystem restoration can also help; a review of forest restoration projects in Latin America found that 83% of projects led to an increased amount of water entering and being absorbed by soil supporting agricultural productivity.

However, these initiatives require investment and knowledge. The RECLIMA project in El Salvador, backed by the Green Climate Fund, is helping small farmers adapt to the challenges of climate change by improving their basic infrastructure and technical knowledge. The project seeks to boost resilience in agricultural systems covering more than 56,000 hectares, by promoting adaptation measures such as the use of seeds tolerant to drought as well as promoting the restoration of degraded ecosystems.

Farming can be responsible for as well as a victim of water scarcity and climate change will place many pressures on farming systems. However, innovation and more efficient farming methods can help make better use of the world’s water resources.

Read more from Farmfolio.