Water and Food Security: Improving Agricultural Water Productivity

Global population and income growth results in higher demand for more and better food. To meet this demand, agriculture will have to expand irrigation water use. Yet, competition for water resources is expected to intensify and climate change will further stress water availability. Within these constraints, the optimal solution is to improve the productivity of water in agriculture - higher agricultural production with the same amount of water or the same production with less water. Water savings could then be reallocated to other, high-value uses.

What is the initiative about?

The Improving Agricultural Water Productivity Initiative is a World Bank flagship program that aims to inform the policy and operational dialogue on options that enable the growth of agricultural production but at the same time address the rising demand for water and the impacts of climate change on water availability. It is conducted in collaboration with the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and partnerships have also been developed with researchers and academics.

The initiative focuses on improving agricultural water productivity, especially in irrigated areas— where the competition for water is intensifying and/or water supplies are becoming less reliable. It will inform knowledge on two fronts, with the ultimate goal of making water allocation at the basin level more efficient.

  • First, policy makers looking to boost agricultural production will be better positioned to account for changes in irrigation water availability.
  • Second, water specialists will be prepared to look beyond water and take into account other production factors that can improve agricultural water productivity.

Why was the initiative created?

The initiative is filling a gap in the development literature by assessing the basic instruments available for improving water productivity, and discussing which interventions may be feasible and most suitable in a particular situation. It will also help teams measure the results of project interventions to identify sustainable ways to increase productivity.

How will the initiative help address those challenges?

The initiative brings some of the insights of the agricultural production economics literature to the water literature, and vice versa. It will develop a more systematic approach for choosing interventions and possibly a framework to assess their suitability in different contexts. It is expected to strengthen Bank operations by helping to enhance project design, implementation, and results monitoring.


A survey of the agricultural productivity and efficiency literature was conducted and its findings were published as a World Bank Policy Research Working Paper entitled “How to Assess Agricultural Water Productivity: Looking for Water in the Agricultural Productivity and Efficiency Literature. Contacts have been established with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, which is also keen to enhance the incorporation of water into productivity measures.

What’s next?

During the 11th Annual Meeting of the International Water Resource Economics Consortium (IWREC) that was hosted at the World Bank in September, 2014, a paper presentation on agricultural water productivity and efficiency of agricultural water use was based on this initiative. A workshop involving the flagship’s collaborators took place in December, 2014 and the initiative’s final report is expected in 2015.

WPP Contributions to Food and Water Security in the Sahel

The Sahel is a semi-arid region between the Saharan desert and the humid Savanna and grasslands of West Africa, encompassing parts of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Senegal. Rainfall is highly variable and droughts and floods have a huge impact on local economies. Low rainfall in 2011 led to serious food shortages the following year; an estimated 14 million people are affected by such droughts. 

In 2013, the World Bank Group (WBG) pledged $1.5 billion over 2 years to support major regional development priorities in the Sahel. These include the introduction of social safety nets to help families weather the worst effects of economic adversity and natural disasters, the improvement of basic infrastructure, and the creation of new opportunities in rural areas.

In support of the Bank’s contribution to this agenda, the WPP is funding a new framework for irrigation development, and a comprehensive assessment of available water resources.

  • First, a strategic framework is paving the way towards a major shift in the speed, soundness, and impact of irrigation investment in the Sahel.
  • Second, the subsequent regional roadmap details how to achieve the quantitative and qualitative objectives set at the High-Level Forum in Dakar, including ways to raise agricultural productivity; value chains for food production and export; private sector participation in new irrigation development; and access to land and private finance for smallholders.
  • Finally, the WPP is providing upstream funding for national and regional assessments of surface and groundwater resources to determine a pipeline of bankable projects and develop a plan for transboundary management. Securing the water supply will help the region build on high-value niche markets thanks to its hot and dry climate, combined with few pests and disease risks.