With its recently released Water and Development Strategy , USAID highlights some practical and potentially powerful initiatives both to improve health by expanding access to clean water and sanitation and to improve food security through better water management in agriculture.
With respect to food security, the report singles out two areas for action:
1) Make rainfed agriculture work better. As the report argues, “The greatest and most cost effective potential for crop yield increases are in rainfed areas. Half of the increase in the projected demand for water by 2025 could be met by increasing the efficiency of irrigation in these areas.” The report also notes that “in many instances, the major obstacle to rainfed agriculture is not the absolute volume of rainfall; it is management of that rainfall.” The report seems optimistic about the solutions available to bolster rainfed agriculture. For example, it points to a basic agricultural technique (ridge tillage) that allowed rainfed farmers in Mali to increase the yields of cereals “by 30 to 50 percent.”
2) Make irrigation more effective. The report announces that “USAID will focus on increasing irrigated agriculture in select countries, including expanding irrigation in a responsible, sustainable, and climate-resistant way. The most cost-effective investment for USAID in irrigated systems will be in improving the efficiency of existing irrigation systems and building the capacity to manage those systems like a business, whether through community based organizations or private investments.” The report points to the reality that without good management, “irrigation infrastructure has often fallen into disuse at the end of a project because benefits were too small and/or users were unable to cover recurring costs.”
According to USAID, rainfed agriculture is responsible for over 60 percent of food produced globally. Thus, the focus on improving the productivity of rainfed agriculture is sensible–indeed, working to improve preexisting systems and business processes should be seen more in international development efforts. Kickstart, a nonprofit organization that I’ve written about  previously, takes this practical approach. It is currently selling affordable, portable pumps to smallholder farmers in countries in Sub-Saharan Africa so that they too can experience the benefits of irrigation on a continent where only about 6 percent of the cultivated land is irrigated (versus 37 percent in Asia, for instance). Kickstart estimates  that since 1991, its affordable pumps have alleviated poverty for over 700,000 people.
As the global population continues to climb toward 10 billion, and more people enjoy the higher caloric intake of middle class life, finding sustainable ways to improve agricultural productivity is increasingly important. As the USAID strategy makes clear, more careful water management will be a critical part of the solution.