Farming: Wasteful water use

Excessive water use for agriculture is leaving rivers, lakes and underground water sources dry in many irrigated areas.
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Intensive cultivation of soybeans using rotary irrigation system, Goias State, Brazil.
© Edward Parker / WWF-Canon

Agriculture: the greatest user of water

Globally, the agricultural sector consumes about 70% of the planet's accessible freshwater1 – more than twice that of industry (23%), and dwarfing municipal use (8%).

Wasteful and unsustainable

Between 15–35% of water use by agriculture is estimated to be unsustainable2. Moreover, agriculture wastes 60% or 1,500 trillion litres, of the 2,500 trillion litres of water it uses each year.

Many big food producing countries like the US, China, India, Pakistan, Australia and Spain have reached, or are close to reaching, their renewable water resource limits.

The main causes of wasteful and unsustainable water use are:
  • leaky irrigation systems
  • wasteful field application methods
  • cultivation of thirsty crops not suited to the environment.
The problem is made worse by misdirected subsidies, low public and political awareness of the crisis, and weak environmental legislation.

Multiple environmental impacts

Unsustainable water use harms the environment by changing the water table and/or depleting ground water supplies.

Excessive irrigation can also increase soil salinity and wash pollutants and sediment into rivers – causing damage to freshwater ecosystems and species as well as those further downstream, including coral reefs and coastal fish breeding grounds.



1. Clay, J. (2004) World Agriculture and the Environment: A Commodity-by-Commodity Guide to Impacts and Practices Island Press
2. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis Island Press
 / ©: Hartmut Jungius / WWF-Canon
Most water from the Amu Darya River – Central Asia's longest river – is used for irrigation of cotton and other crops in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. This has led to the drying up of the river, and the Aral Sea in particular. Once the world's 4th largest lake, the Aral Sea has shrunk to less than half its size and become as salty as the ocean in the past 30 years. This has caused widespread economic losses and human suffering.
© Hartmut Jungius / WWF-Canon
Most water from the Amu Darya River – Central Asia's longest river – is used to irrigate cotton and other crops in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. As a result, the river no longer flows to the Aral Sea.

Once the world's 4th largest lake, the Aral Sea has shrunk to less than half its size and become as salty as the ocean in the past 30 years. This has caused widespread economic losses and human suffering.

Thirsty crops: cotton, rice, sugarcane & wheat

  • A WWF report identifies cotton, rice, sugarcane and wheat as the 'thirstiest' crops in 9 large river basins rich in biodiversity.

    Together, these 4 crops account for 58% of the world's irrigated farmland.

Water use by sector

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