The Role of Commercial Agriculture in Tackling Water Scarcity

Nora Lanari, Centre for Business in Society

Growing water scarcity is one of the leading challenges in achieving sustainable development. Continuous population growth and climate change affect water systems worldwide. Unlike carbon, however, water is such an extremely localised resource and therefore effects of water consumption and pollution cannot be mitigated elsewhere (Vos and Boelens 2014).

In order to tackle these challenges, the 2030 Agenda has dedicated one standalone Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) to water. SDG 6 seeks to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. One way to achieve this is through implementation of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM), promoted in Goal 6.5 of the SGDs. IWRM has been adopted in the majority of river basins across the world. One of the central tenets of IWRM is participation and inclusion of all relevant stakeholders.

Agriculture is the largest water user globally, accounting for roughly 70% of freshwater withdrawals (UNWWAP 2012), but also affecting water quality due to use of pesticides and chemicals. At the COP22 FAO proposed a global framework to cope with water scarcity in agriculture, again highlighting collaboration between governments, civil society and communities, and the private sector as an important factor to sustainable water management.

In that sense, commercial export-oriented agriculture plays a key-role. These stakeholders often use copious amounts of water for products that are exported towards Europe or North America. This ‘virtual water’ transfer is especially problematic when production happens in semi-arid or arid regions and countries, such as South Africa. In my PhD research, I investigate how the export-oriented horticulture industry in the Western Cape, South Africa engages in water governance.

The research is relevant as private sector engagement in water governance is contested and harbours varying hazards (Hepworth 2012). However, because of the power and resources (human and financial) of these private actors, and the urgency of the water challenges, we simply cannot afford not to engage with the private sector, especially not in water-intensive agricultural industries (Sojamo and Archer Larson 2012). Enlightened corporate water engagement as part of multi-stakeholder approaches has therefore the potential to contribute to more sustainable water management.


Hepworth, N. (2012) ‘Open for Business or Opening Pandora’s Box? A Constructive Critique of Corporate Engagement in Water Policy: An Introduction’. Water Alternatives 5 (3), 543–562

Sojamo, S. and Archer Larson, E. (2012) ‘Investigating Food and Agribusiness Corporations as Global Water Security, Management and Governance Agents’. Water Alternatives 5 (3), 619–635

UNWWAP (2012) The United Nations World Water Development Report 4: Managing Water under Uncertainty and Risk. vol. 1. Pario

Vos, J. and Boelens, R. (2014) ‘Sustainability Standards and the Water Question’. Development and Change [online] 45 (2), 205–230. available from <> [27 May 2016]



Coventry University