Water use in agriculture



Farming accounts for around 70% of water used in the world today and also contributes to water pollution from excess nutrients, pesticides and other pollutants. But the competition for water is increasing and the costs of water pollution can be high.    

Increased pressure from urbanisation, industrialisation and climate change will provide agriculture with more competition for water resources and climate change could affect water supply and agriculture through changes in the seasonal timing of rainfall and snow pack melt, as well as higher incidence and severity of floods and droughts.

Sustainable management of water in agriculture is critical to increase agricultural production, ensure water can be shared with other users and maintain the environmental and social benefits of water systems. Governments need to improve the economic efficiency and environmental effectiveness of policies that seek to improve water resource use efficiency and reduce water pollution from agricultural systems.

To assist policy makers in addressing this challenge, OECD indicators and analysis contribute to formulating policy responses that will move agriculture towards the sustainable management of water. 

For a synthetic view on the work and policy recommendations on agriculture and water, please consult the April 2016 Agricultural Ministerial Background note “Agriculture and Water”.

At a higher level, OECD's work on agriculture and water is also embedded into  the December 2016 OECD Council Recommendation on Water.


Blogs, articles and videos based on OECD work on agriculture and water:


Latest reports

Reforming water policies in agriculture: Lessons from past reforms
OECD Food, Agriculture and Fisheries Papers, No. 113.

Agriculture’s water quality and quantity challenges continue to grow in many regions of the world. Policy solutions have been identified, but not always applied where needed nor implemented effectively. This report analyses eight past water and agriculture policy changes in OECD countries with the aim to identify steps towards adopting and implementing such solutions effectively. The analysis shows that exogenous factors and reform design features that may facilitate the adoption of reforms. The geographical scale and scope of a reform, the dynamic pattern of reform pathways, and compensation for farmers, also contribute to shape the reform’s outcome. There are however trade-offs between the effects of these factors on the reform’s ambition, effectiveness, efficiency, and flexibility.

» Read the full report


Managing weather-related disasters in Southeast Asian Agriculture

Southeast Asia’s exposure to increasingly frequent and intense weather-related disasters is a growing concern for agricultural producers of the region. This study reviews policy approaches to droughts, floods and typhoons in Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam in an effort to identify good practices and strengthen the resilience of the agricultural sector.


Water Risk Hotspots for Agriculture 

Agriculture is expected to face increasing water risks that will impact production, markets, trade and food security - risks that can be mitigated with targeted policy actions on water hotspots. This report develops the hotspot approach, provides an application at the global scale, and presents a mitigation policy action plan. The People’s Republic of China, India and the United States are identified as countries facing the greatest water risks for agriculture production globally.


Water risk hotspots for agriculture: The case of the southwest United States
OECD Food, Agriculture and Fisheries Papers, No. 96

This report analyses trends in agriculture for the US Southwest region, one of the most water stressed and productive agricultural regions in the world expected to face further water shortages in the future due to climate change and continued growth. It examines projected water risks by mid-century without additional policy action, and discusses the expected implications for the agriculture sector, based on a review of existing data and available publications. Policy options can help mitigate these projected water risks, such as agricultural and urban water efficiency improvements, refined groundwater management, investment in water banks and recycled wastewater systems, and well-defined water transfers.

» Read the full report


Mitigating Droughts and Floods in Agriculture - Policy Lessons and Approaches
OECD Studies on Water

Climate change is expected to increase the frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events, notably of droughts and floods to which the agriculture sector is particularly exposed. While agricultural productivity growth and policy development have allowed to better cope with these risks and reduce overall impacts on the sector and commodity markets, there is substantial room to improve policy responses and co-ordinate across policy domains, including with respect to water rights and allocation, weather and hydrological information, innovation and education, and insurance and compensation schemes. Indeed, drought and flood risks are likely to become a major policy concern as increasing population will increase the demand for food, feed, fibre, and energy, not to mention the competition for water resources, and urbanisation will increase the demand for flood protection and mitigation, raising the issue of the allocation of flood risks across sectors and areas. 

» Read the full report


Drying Wells, Rising Stakes : Towards Sustainable Agricultural Groundwater Use

Groundwater has provided great benefits to agriculture irrigation in semi-arid OECD countries, but its intensive use beyond recharge in certain regions has depleted resources and generated significant negative environmental externalities. The report provides a characterisation of the diversity of groundwater systems, reviews policies in OECD countries, and proposes a package of recommendations to ensure that groundwater can sustain its services to agriculture and contribute to climate change adaptation.

» Read the policy note summarising the findings of the report

» See also OECD country profiles on policies to manage agricultural groundwater use


‌Climate Change, Water and Agriculture: Towards Resilient Systems

This report reviews the main linkages between climate change, water and agriculture as a means to identifying and discussing adaptation strategies for better use and conservation of water resources. It aims to provide guidance to decision makers on choosing an appropriate mix of policies and market approaches to address the interaction between agriculture and water systems under climate change.

» Access the report


This book examines linking policies, farm management and water quality. It looks at recent trends and prospects for water pollution from agriculture and the implications of climate change. It assesses the costs and benefits of agriculture's impact on water systems, and contains a number of case studies on agriculture and water pollution at the regional (European Union, the Baltic Sea) and national (France, Britain and Australia) levels as well as in specific areas (Lake Taupo, New Zealand and Chesapeake Bay, United States).

» Access the report

» See also OECD Compendium of Agri-environmental Indicators (2013)


World agriculture faces an enormous challenge over the next 40 years: to produce almost 50% more food up to 2030 and double production by 2050. This will probably have to be achieved with less water, mainly because of pressure from growing urbanisation, industrialisation and climate change.



Indicators and data

Supporting the report Environmental Performance of Agriculture in OECD Countries Since 1990, this database features statistics on the impact of agriculture on the quality and use of water in OECD member countries.

» Access the OECD.stat database on water-use and quality in OECD countries



  • Facilitating policy change towards sustainable water use in agriculture, Word-Bank OECD workshop, Washington DC, May 29-30 2018
  • Pathways to policy change on water in agriculture, OECD-European Commission workshop, Brussels, February 20-21 2018
  • On 20 January 2017, the OECD in collaboration with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) organised an expert panel entitled “Agriculture and groundwater- feeding billions from the ground up” at the 2017 Global Forum on Food and Agriculture (GFFA) in Berlin, Germany. The OECD also participated to the 21 January 2017 GFFA Agriculture meeting at Ministerial level, whose theme was “Agriculture and water - Key to Feeding the World".
  • On 9 November 2016, the OECD, in partnership with the Ministry of Economic Affairs of the Netherlands, organised a workshop on Managing water risks for agriculture: a discussion with the private sector, at the OECD headquarters, Paris, with the objective to engage into a public-private discussion on future water risk assessment and innovative responses in the agro-food sector. The exercise strove to identify what agro-food companies consider as prevalent agricultural water risks and how they have acted against those risks.


Other publications

Sustainable agriculture
Agriculture is the major user of water in most countries. It also faces the enormous challenge of producing almost 50% more food by 2030 and doubling production by 2050. This book shows the trends and outlook for water use in agriculture, examines the policy experiences of OECD countries in managing their resources - and recommends what countries should be doing and why.

Managing Water Resources in the Agricultural Sector (chapter from Managing Water for All: An OECD Perspective on Pricing and Financing)
Water resources management in agriculture is complex, covering a diverse range of farming systems, climatic conditions, sources of water, property rights, institutional arrangements, and cultural and social contexts. This chapter looks at the challenges and options facing policy makers


 (chapter from Environmental Performance of Agriculture in OECD Countries Since 1990)
OECD agricultural water use rose by 2% over the period 1990-92 to 2001-03. Nearly half of OECD member countries record that nutrient and pesticide concentrations in surface water and groundwater monitoring sites in agricultural areas exceed national drinking water recommended limits - which brings significant treatment costs for some countries. This report analyses the impacts of agriculture in OECD member countries on water, air, soil, biodiversity and other environmental themes.


OECD Workshop on water information systems
International experts met for an OECD workshop in Zaragoza, Spain in 2010 to discuss how to develop water information systems to support more efficient and effective delivery of sustainable water resource management and policies. Consult the papers, presentations and outcomes of the workshop.


Related OECD work & contact

More related OECD data, analysis and publications:

For questions on OECD work on water use in agriculture, contact the Trade & Agriculture Directorate.


Related Documents