New model of agriculture and competition for water resources

A study by the Politecnico published in Nature Communications

The ongoing agrarian transformation towards large-scale commercial agriculture often pursues the goal of increasing agricultural production through the expansion of irrigation. A study by Politecnico di Milano, published in Nature Communications, investigates how transnational Large Scale Land Acquisitions (LSLA), which play a major role in this process, can influence competition for water resources at the local scale.

Conducted in collaboration with the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Notre Dame, the Colorado State University, the University of Delaware and the Vrije Univeristeit in Amsterdam, the study combines hydrological and crop modelling, agricultural statistics and geo-referenced information on individual transnational LSLAs to assess the emergence of water scarcity associated with them.

The study found that competition for water has been exacerbated, to the detriment of local communities, for 105 of the 160 LSLAs considered (67% of the land acquired). On the one hand, the land of interest to investors is precisely that with preferential access to surface water and groundwater resources, and on the other hand, it was found that these agricultural investments have often been the premise for the planting of water-intensive crops and the expansion of irrigated crops. 

Combining the growing demand for water with limited water resources is a key challenge for sustainable development,

comments Maria Cristina Rulli, Professor of Hydrology at Politecnico di Milano.

The use of water resources for agricultural production in large-scale land acquisitions can generate hydrological and social consequences for local users. To date, there have been only a few timid attempts to regulate, mainly on a voluntary basis, large-scale agricultural land acquisitions in the Global South and, unfortunately, recent progress in understanding the water dimension of these acquisitions has not yet been translated into a water governance perspective that takes into account any hydrological constraints, the need for water to ensure rural livelihoods, and environmental law.

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