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Study Says Asia's Irrigation Systems Need Reform

Seventy percent of the world's irrigated farmland is in Asia, but a new report says major reforms will be needed if that irrigated land is to feed the people of Asia in the coming years.

Asia is expected to have 1.5 billion more mouths to feed by 2050. Meanwhile, rising prosperity in countries such as China and India means people are eating more meat and dairy products. Those foods require more land and water to produce than the vegetarian diets that these countries used to subsist on.

Those are some of the reasons why a new report says Asia's agricultural lands are under pressure from all sides. The new report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) says Asia's cities are also growing, and competing with farms for land and water.

Nowhere left to farm

Despite the increasing needs, there isn't much extra land to farm. IWMI Director General Colin Chartres says in South Asia there's hardly any unused land left.

"About 94 percent of the available arable land is already cultivated," he says. "So…if we want to increase food production to feed all those people, we're going to have to do it by intensifying existing systems." For one thing, he says, that means upgrading and modernizing old, leaky, inefficient, government-run irrigation systems in Asia.

But the report notes that increasingly, farmers are finding government-run irrigation lacking and they're taking matters into their own hands. Some of their actions can serve as models. For example, farmers in India and China built storage ponds when government-run canals didn't supply enough water.

Too much pumping

But other cases can serve as warnings, Chartres says. "In India and to some extent China, there's been a tremendous change from government-managed irrigation systems with canals to farmers actually just pumping groundwater, which the governments have no regulatory powers over whatsoever. And in the long term this sort of pumping of groundwater may be unsustainable."

For example, a recent study found that farmers in northwestern India are pumping far more water out of the ground than is flowing back in, threatened the water supplies of 114 million people.

Chartres says there need to be incentives for farmers to use water more efficiently. There are some examples where irrigation systems have been transformed into profitable businesses, reducing water use without affecting crop yields. Another approach is to put a value on water by charging a small fee. But Chartres says that strategy can run into problems if it's not handled right.

"In some cases, the governments have terrible trouble collecting that fee," he says. "Farmers actually don't want to pay the fee because they don't see the service being improved. So the fee has to be conditional on the service being improved so that the farmer benefits."

Whatever strategy they use, Chartres says it will be increasingly important that farmers use water more efficiently as the demands for this most valuable resource continue to grow.