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The Importance of Water Management in Agriculture and Our Future

Himanshu Gupta • January 10th, 2023.

agriculture field growing crops farming with and without water. The importance of water management.

Water is the most precious resource on Earth. From its role in our ecosystems and health to its uses in industry and agriculture, humans, plants, and animals all rely on access to clean, safe freshwater sources. Without sustainable water management, this resource becomes scarce and/or polluted — leading to thirst, disease, crop losses, energy/transportation failures, and worse. Proper water management, in terms of resources and utilities, importantly ensures water security for all uses.

Firstly, What Is Water Management?

Water management refers to the planning, developing, budgeting, regulating, and distributing of water resources. Effective, sustainable water management maximizes the beneficial uses of water, while minimizing damage to people, property, and the environment. Doing this involves several different types of water management stakeholders and decisions, governmental policies, private sector strategies, technologies, and household and residential practices). They’re all serving the broader purpose of water resources management, or ensuring both the quantity and quality of water in their local regions and around the world. One big part of water management is water asset management.

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What Is Water Asset Management?

Managing water resources involves many stakeholders as well as historical infrastructure, because of water’s role as a basic human need and as a driver of economic and social development. Water utilities (public and/or private organizations which provide drinking water and handle wastewater) are key players in charge of water infrastructure and water asset management. That is, the process of understanding performance and prioritizing resources for the maintenance of networked wet infrastructure throughout its lifecycle. This is key to ensuring that systems can provide and support a wide range of water services.

Street signed in flooded water.Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

Water Utilities Management

Water utilities management refers to the way water is used by utilities and other water sector stakeholders. Management practices depend on the asset you have, with aspects of water management used in the building and sustaining of technical, managerial, and financial capacity of drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater systems. Because much U.S. water infrastructure is old and unprepared for climate change’s impacts on the water cycle, smart water management is crucial for ensuring water is safe, clean, and available.  

Water Quality Management

Managing water quality means restoring, maintaining, or improving the quality of water resources. That involves monitoring stormwater, wastewater, runoff, and other sources for pollutants, sediments, flow rates, and more. Good water quality management is necessary for humans to have drinking water, and so wildlife and marine life have healthy environments. Hydrologists test and measure water samples to assess water quality conditions.

waste water treatment plant
Waste water treatment plant. Source: Ivan Bandura/ Unsplash.

What is Waste Water Management?

Waste water management is an important part of water management that involves the collection, treatment (to remove contaminants), and reuse of wastewater. It’s important that water that returns to the water cycle and natural bodies be clean to protect public health and the environment.

Watershed managers, municipalities, and utilities have sanitation centers to undertake this, usually by treating sewage.

So, Why is Water Management Important?

Water is prominent in almost every facet of our lives — there is no substitute for it. Water-related issues are increasing and will be the defining challenges of the 21st century: Around the world, water sources face new threats from human activity and climate change, including water stress, extreme weather events, scarcity, contamination, and unpredictable access. Water management is complicated, with diverse stakeholders representing public, private, and environmental concerns. The need for clean water and sustainable water management will be more prominent as time goes on.

1. We Have Limited Access to Water

Freshwater isn’t readily available: Only about 3% of the planet’s water is freshwater, and drinking water is even more scarce, as only about 1.2% is potable (the rest is bound up in glaciers, ice caps, permafrost, or deep underground). But the demand for this resource increases with population growth and economic development, which is why water management is important. Even developed countries face water access issues, although developing countries have it worse. Climate change will cause water to become scarce in regions where it is currently abundant and exacerbate shortages in already water-scarce regions. Today, 40% of the world’s population is affected by water scarcity.

world's freshwater graphic

2. Water Management is Complex

Water management can be difficult and costly, especially amid the current and future issues facing local and global water systems. Climate change’s physical impacts on water systems, changing regulations, and poor water management can affect water availability. Managing water the wrong way can have negative results — for example, scientists have found that bad management of rivers, lakes, wetlands, and groundwater can make droughts worse. In agriculture, particularly, water management needs to be extremely well-planned, especially in terms of irrigation.

3. Water Management Creates Sustainability

Effective sustainable water resource governance can help meet sustainability and water conservation goals, saving water and money. With growing global water scarcity and water pollution, water managers are seeking more sustainable solutions to use water in a way that meets current, ecological, social, and economic needs without compromising the ability to meet those needs in the future. That involves addressing freshwater availability, watershed pollution, seasonal precipitation variability, saline intrusion, flooding liability, untreated connected wastewater, eutrophication, and more.

4. Food Production and Water Management are Connected

Growing enough food to feed the world is a thirsty business. Most food industries have high water dependence and water footprints — for example, irrigation, food processing, and beverage production are all water-intensive activities. This can expose growers and companies to risks around water shortages, water quality, and floods, all of which impact production, trade, and food security. Proper water management in agriculture and water asset management means using technologies like more efficient water irrigation and reuse systems to minimize water waste and ensure safety.

5. Over 2 Billion People Don’t Have Access To Proper Water Systems

A significant proportion of the eight billion people on Earth today can’t access clean water. A 2019 report from the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF found that over 2 billion people suffer from minimal access to safe water, sanitation, and hygiene services. Accessibility, availability, and quality of these services can be inequitable. For one out of four countries, coverage of basic water services among the richest was at least twice as high as among the poorest. Integrated water resources management is necessary to safeguard water supply.

Share of population that has access to improved water

6. Water Quality Management Can Be Deadly

Poor water quality management can have deadly consequences. If water systems aren’t set up properly and maintained well, heavy metals, chemicals, and diseases can then permeate. This happens when germs or chemicals enter water sources (groundwater or surface water) or as water travels through distribution systems (pipes). Consider lead in Flint, Michigan’s water or fertilizer runoff into the Mississippi River. Those with weakened immune systems, infants, children, pregnant women, and older adults are more likely to get sick this way.

7. Privatized Water Management Systems Raise Prices

When local water systems or sewer systems are privatized — privately owned corporations buy water utilities — these areas tend to have higher water prices. Often, communities face more expensive water bills, worsened service, and little control to address these issues. Water resources and their management should be available to the population that uses this water for drinking, growing food, and supporting its local economy.

8. Water Management Is a Global Issue

Water management is both a local and global issue, because water is regionally managed but the world’s water is interconnected. Everyone’s water comes from somewhere — sometimes not particularly close, like when water-rich areas (e.g. northern California) support water-poor regions (e.g. southern California). Poor water systems are everywhere: Cities can run out of water even in developed countries, like Day Zero in Cape Town, South Africa. 

9. Proper Water Management Is Good for Everyone

On the other hand, proper water management benefits everyone. Integrated water management, or collaborative processes among water stakeholders, can conserve this precious resource so that it’s available for all uses. Because of threats to water resources — climate change affecting water availability in unpredictable ways, hard-to-manage pollution, and unreliable access to water causing high prices and even conflict — everyone should focus on this diminishing resource. Investor interest, consumer focus, and regulatory action are converging on this key set of issues.

Identifying Risks from Water Resources

Too Much

Too much water in the wrong places puts ecosystems, people, property, and infrastructure at risk. Consider: Excess water obstructs the oxygen exchange among plants’ roots and inhibits other vital processes in nature. It can also lead to the accumulation of toxic compounds in plant roots and soil. In addition, the most common type of natural disasters are water-related (about 75%), and without smart water management, storms and floods lead to mass destruction. Both human activity and nature contribute to these events.

Example

Excess water in agricultural production, from heavy rains to overirrigation, can lower crop growth and productivity, as well as damage buildings/structures. Too much water in crop root zone soil inhibits growth, especially during key crop-stages. In-field waterlogging can also result in leaching or excess soil salinity. In addition, issues arise like ponding, flooding, and drainage.

A flooded agricultural fieldPhoto by Levi Morsy on Unsplash.

Too Little

Having too little water refers to water scarcity. With only 3% of water available as freshwater and only 1% of that usable, it is already in short supply. Water stress, interannual and seasonal variability, and drought all contribute to shrinking water availability, necessitating water supply management. In addition, as water becomes more scarce in a region, excessive pumping can cause land to sink and wells to go dry. Again, both human activity and nature contribute to this.

Example

Farmers face difficulty planting amid long-term water shortages, as they delay crop development. Scarcity creates water stress, which can limit plant height, leaf size/leaf area, and photosynthesis. Plus, uneven growth creates problems with pest management, as different pests prefer different growth stages, so efficient pesticide application is trickier. 

Too Polluted

View of runoff, transporting nonpoint source pollution, from a farm field in Iowa during a rain storm. Topsoil as well as farm fertilizers and other potential pollutants run off unprotected farm fields when heavy rains occur.
Runoff transports nonpoint source pollution from a farm in Iowa during a storm. Source: Lynn Betts, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service

Because our water comes from various sources (groundwater, surface lakes and rivers, snowmelt, rain, dew, and runoff), it easily gets intermingled with pollutants that contaminate our water sources very broadly very quickly. These make the water unusable for drinking, cooking, cleaning, swimming, and other uses. Plus, water contamination can be very expensive and difficult to address, even with water quality oversight. Water pollution is mainly due to human activities. Even if you live in a water-rich region, reducing water pollution matters.

Example

Farming practices both contribute to water pollution and are also harmed by water pollution. Fertilizer/pesticide overuse can spread chemicals into nearby water sources, causing algal blooms, affecting ecosystem health, preventing recreational activities, and increasing water treatment costs. Alternatively, polluted agricultural water can potentially spread bacteria, viruses, and parasites to crops and animals.

Implications for the World

Long-term water scarcity, pollution, and excess water can all have devastating effects on public health and economic development. Diminishing usable water for drinking, sanitation, agriculture, and industry is dangerous to humans, wildlife, and the environment. The world’s current consumption rate of water will soon outpace supply without action and successful sustainable water management. Experts believe that by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages, and ecosystems around the world will suffer greatly as well.

What is Water Security?

Ensuring that a population has enough water of sufficient quality for it to survive and to carry out economic activities — is the ultimate goal of water management and policy. Water security is essential for human life, as well as for economic growth and environmental maintenance, and for us all to survive and thrive we need proper, effective, sustainable, equitable water management. Without it, the world faces a dire, potentially deadly situation.

Water reflection on pondPhoto by Snejina Nikolova on Unsplash.

Different Types of Water Management & Conservation Methods in Agriculture

Agricultural water management refers to the practices of growers, agronomists, landowners, and ranchers that seek to provide crops/animals with sufficient water while enhancing productivity and preserving supply. Sustainable water management systems are used in fields, greenhouses, and farmland globally, and are key for growers’ licenses to operate because of agriculture’s water intensity. There are many different methods to conserve and manage water here.

Water Harvesting

Water harvesting generally means the practice of collecting excess water from one use with the goal of reusing this water for human, animal, or agriculture areas, as opposed to letting the water evaporate or be absorbed into the ground or back into rivers. As a part of a sustainable water management strategy, it helps conserve groundwater, save on energy required for wastewater treatment, and limit storm runoff. It’s an example of how nature supports water management in cities.

Rainwater Harvesting

Rainwater harvesting involves collecting excess water (rain, dew, and fog) from a certain location. It’s a simple, ancient type of water harvesting that societies in arid climates used as a water management system for drinking water and irrigation. Water is often collected in barrel-like structures, either on the ground or on roofs. It can sustainably replenish places like cities’ water supplies.

Groundwater Harvesting

Groundwater harvesting replenishes water underground using man made appliances like infiltration basins, trenches, dams, or injection wells. A key type of integrated water resources management, this helps in times of water surplus to cover during periods of shortage (during rainy seasons, for example, and it also helps reduce flooding.) It’s an extremely efficient and cost-effective technique to recharge aquifers in a sustainable way.

Drip Irrigation

An important type of agricultural water management, drip irrigation is widely known as the most efficient water and/or nutrient delivery system for growing crops. It contains a network of valves, pipes, tubing, and emitters that evenly distribute water via slow dripping it directly to the root zone of plants (either from just above the soil surface or while buried below the surface) to minimize evaporation and conserve soil nutrients.

irrigation in crop fieldPhoto by Steve Harvey on Unsplash.

Water Conscious Habits

All sectors, including agriculture, heavy industry, and healthcare, must commit to sustainable water resources management. But individuals also have the power to adopt practices and behaviors that help improve water quality and scarcity. They can use certain technologies (filters, chlorine, leak prevention devices, sensors, etc.) to enhance this. Practices like taking fewer/shorter showers, running only a full dishwasher, using native or drought-tolerant plants in landscaping, not hosing down the car to wash it, etc. also help.

Smart Water Management Techniques

Solutions for water challenges involve smart water management techniques such as water-smart landscaping and irrigation with drought-tolerant native species. For example, grouping plants with similar water needs together (aka “hydrozoning) makes watering more efficient, and only water when needed. Also, planting native water-efficient plants saves resources — they require much less watering, fertilizer, and pesticides — and supports biodiversity and natural pollinators. This can prevent water run-off and improve air quality. Using drought-resistant turf only in recreational areas also helps (grass lawns are water-intensive).

Recovering Air Handler Condensate

Optimizing water systems in facilities is essential for proper integrated water resources management. Particularly, air handlers are heating/cooling equipment that circulate indoor air as part of an HVAC system, and during hot, humid weather, their cooling creates excess condensation over the cooling coils. Condensate can be captured and pumped back into water systems, meaning it can be reused for several applications (as it is still considered distilled water). This conserves significant freshwater resources and money.

Renovate Restrooms

Restroom fixtures can use lots of water, so renovating building water systems can be a valuable part of integrated water management. Water-efficient updates include fixing leaky pipes/faucets or replacing outdated appliances that hike water/energy bills and ruin septic systems. For example, the EPA’s WaterSense program recommends:

  • New toilets with flow rates of 1.28 or 1.6 gpf, and WaterSense-certified urinals flushing at 0.5 gpf or less
  • WaterSense-labeled showerheads flowing at 2.0 gallons per minute (gpm) or less.

Reuse Water

Certain industries with specific water needs can still employ integrated water resources management and recycle/reuse water, either directly onsite or via municipalities reclaiming it. For example, laboratories requiring water for research often pump it from local bodies, then can discharge it as sewage or treat it and return it to the source. Most recycled water is nonpotable,  but it can be treated to become drinkable. Benefits of water recycling include freshwater conservation and resource recovery, but challenges range from high cost to strict regulations around drinking water.

hong kong trees
Photo by Lisanto 李奕良 on Unsplash.

Water Management in Cities?

Nature-based solutions, including restoring wetlands and other ecosystems, can help protect, manage, and restore natural systems. Also, ensuring that local forests are healthy boosts water filtration, reduces water treatment costs, and improves water quality. This matters for urban water supply, drainage, wastewater treatment, and water-related sludge handling. 

Current Challenges of Water Supply Management

Climate Change Leading to Water Shortages

Diminished surface and groundwater reserves, as well as changes in precipitation patterns and extreme weather events, are expected to become more frequent and severe under climate change. This leads to water supply and management problems. Higher concentrations of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere trap heat, leading to higher global temperatures that increase the evaporation rates of water on the planet’s surface, drying out soils and vegetation. For example, the Western U.S. is in the middle of a mega-drought exacerbated by climate change. It has dried up reservoirs, limited water supply for crops, and created conditions that lead to worse wildfires.

Increasing Water Pollutants

The biggest challenge in water today is pollution. Rivers, reservoirs, lakes, and/or seas can become contaminated due to excessive exploitation, agriculture, and human activities. A growing global population increases these activities that release more chemicals, waste, plastic, and other pollutants. Agriculture can release pollution in different ways, such as pesticide leakage or fertilizer runoff. This results in unsafe water. According to the World Wildlife Federation, approximately 1.1 billion people worldwide lack access to water, and in total 2.7 billion people find water scarce for at least one month a year. Inadequate sanitation is also a problem for 2.4 billion people. 

Rising Water Consumption Rate

As climate change worsens, global demographics shift, and economic growth accelerates, demand for the world’s finite water supply has spiked. According to the United Nations, water use has risen by more than twice the rate of population growth in the last century. By 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in water-scarce areas. Agriculture in particular is a water-intensive sector, and agriculture irrigation accounts for an estimated 70% of water use worldwide. But to feed the growing population, agricultural production will need to expand by approximately 70% by 2050. That means optimizing water supply and management for sustainability must be prioritized.

global freshwater use over time chart

What Is Smart Water Management?

Smart water management means using intelligent equipment, smart networks, and digital solutions to mitigate water-related risks (droughts, contamination, etc.). Technology and innovation can help enhance water efficiency, water utilities management, water quality monitoring, and water scarcity prevention. Analytics and data can help understand future water impacts and extreme weather risks — especially in financial terms — for the year or decades ahead. ClimateAi can help with smart water management, providing granular, accurate, business-specific, and actionable resilience tools to adapt to a water-scarce, climate-changing world. 

ClimateAi Is at the Forefront of Managing Water Risks

ClimateAi gives businesses unprecedented insights into the water risks their operations and supply chains face, from today to 50 years out. With revolutionary customizable tools to tackle water supply chain management, risk management/mitigation, and sustainability, users can assess specific watersheds and groundwater resources with greater accuracy than any publicly available tools. ClimateAi’s dashboards include multiple climate change scenarios, in line with the IPCC’s, providing TCFD- and CDP-disclosure-aligned outputs. Learn more about sustainable water management systems from advisor

Sustainable Water Management: Looking Into the Future

The right water supply chain strategies and water management technologies can address water risks and challenges to improve resiliency for both public and private stakeholders. Overall, when they engage in best practices including both demand-side — water efficiency, reuse, recycling, and conservation practices — and supply-side water risk management, it’s possible to secure global water supply for all types of use and to maintain environmental integrity. Water is an important part of everyone’s lives, and ClimateAi aims to improve water management and mitigate water risks, in the short-term and long-term, through reliable, granular data and actionable insights.

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