Being the Change in Water Innovation

March 21, 2023
Published by
ICARDA Communication Team
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
World Water Day 2023
Join us and “Be the Change” for #WaterAction on #WordWaterDay.
Dr. Vinay Nangia


On World Water Day 2023, Vinay Nangia, Team Leader of ICARDA’s Soil, Water, and Agronomy Research Unit, explains how ICARDA’s agri-water innovations and approaches help farmers to “Be the Change” for better water use in dryland agriculture. 




Did you know that it takes one liter of water to produce one calorie of food or that a healthy human body needs 2,500 calories a day? Changing how we produce and consume food to reduce our water footprint matters.


ICARDA works closely with governments and farmers in dry regions to do just that. Drylands cover over 40 percent of the world’s land surface and support 44 percent of its food production, providing livelihoods and food and nutrition security for millions of farming communities – people we help to become water-smart in the face of increasing climate uncertainty. 


By taking a three-pronged approach to making every drop count, ICARDA operates as a one-stop shop to develop the right innovations and practices that catalyze change across dryland food production systems. Individually, our new water-use approaches can significantly improve yields and national food sovereignty. If adopted systemically and at scale, their impact on the global water footprint could be game-changing. 


Our first goal is to provide innovative and non-conventional ways to source water for agriculture. In Egypt, a project to recycle wastewater to irrigate wheat and barley crops uses water that otherwise would be literally lost at sea. This novel approach is part of a larger effort to assess the potential of using treated wastewater for agriculture to help address the ongoing water crisis in the Middle East and North Africa region. Farmers in Jordan, meanwhile, are making sure that when the rain comes, it is harvested and preserved through a project to restore degraded rangelands, giving a modern twist to an ancient method of using pits to capture rainwater for irrigation. The pits result in micro-basins that capture rainwater, seeds, topsoil, and organic matter and penetrate the compacted and degraded soil instead of simply washing everything away.  


Yet even with diversified water sources, reducing water use in these fragile and vulnerable systems remains critical. So our second approach is to work closely with farmers to find solutions that work in local contexts and to build their capacity to adopt and scale them. Agroecological approaches such as zero tillage, crop rotations, and raised beds reduce water use, for example, by reducing evaporation. And they work! In Morocco, trials using these methods demonstrated a 19 percent increase in wheat yields, resulting in national adoption to reverse falling agricultural productivity and stabilize yields.  
With the right tools and knowledge, farmers can be more precise about how much water they need, reducing water wastage. Supplemental irrigation, a system developed by ICARDA, delivers just the right amount of water to stabilize and increase yields in rainfed crops when scarce rain is at a premium. And working with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), we established the first regional evapotranspiration measurement network in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, and Tunisia to better understand how much water different crops need in different environments and different seasons – vital information for farmers and governments in today’s climate crisis conditions. 


World Water Day 2023 - Irrigation



The third approach is to work with farmers and communities on which crops to plant. Not all crops – or all varieties of crops – have an equal water footprint, so it is essential to choose carefully. A project in Morocco is intercropping quinoa and lentils – so that two traditional and nutritious dryland crops can be produced from a ‘normal’ rainfall regime, generating extra farmer income from the same piece of land. Meanwhile, farmers in Ethiopia are diversifying the varieties of crops used for bread, including barley, that are more resilient than wheat to climate change. Taking a crowdsourced approach, this project looks beyond agronomic traits to ensure that introduced varieties work in the local context – for example, the right taste and texture for local recipes. This approach ensures that they are integrated into the communities they are intended to help. 


Given the intensifying climate events and diminishing freshwater resources, the global picture for farmers in the driest areas could look bleak without continued innovation to help make agriculture more efficient and more productive in all ways. The critical research we conduct on the ground engages the farmers right from the start, ensuring our solutions work for them and are adopted. It buys them time, while ‘bigger picture’ solutions to limit global warming and reduce climate emissions build momentum.  


"Today marks the halfway point of the UN Decade for Action on Water for Sustainable Development. I am proud that as part of this campaign to accelerate global action to meet water-related challenges, ICARDA is helping the communities we serve to take action in their own lives to change how they use, consume, and manage water. That is the only way to achieve climate-smart food system transformation."   - Vinay Nangia

Join us and “Be the Change” for #WaterAction on #WordWaterDay.