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Quantifying the Human Appropriation of Fresh Water by African Agriculture

Martina Weiß, Center for Environmental Systems Research, University of Kassel
Rüdiger Schaldach, Center for Environmental Systems Research, University of Kassel
Joseph Alcamo, Center for Environmental Systems Research, University of Kassel
Martina Flörke, Center for Environmental Systems Research, University of Kassel


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Human appropriation of renewable freshwater (HARF) is a measure for the influence of human activities on the global water cycle. It describes the fraction of accessible water that is directly used by human-dominated systems. We present a comprehensive model-based analysis of HARF for crop production on the African continent. Our analysis includes the components evapotranspiration from cropland (“green” water fluxes) and water used for cropland irrigation (crop-related fraction of “blue” water fluxes). Model experiments were conducted for two scenarios with a time horizon of 2050, taking into account the combined effects of land-use change, climate change, and technological change. For the year 2000, evapotranspiration from Africa’s rainfed cropland (green water flux) is estimated to be 1085 km3/yr, whereas the abstraction of water for irrigation purposes from the renewable water resources (blue water flux) is estimated to be approximately 180 km3/yr. According to the model experiments, between 2000–2050, an area between 1.25 million km2 and 1.56 million km2 of natural biomes will be converted to cropland. Consequently, for 2050, evapotranspiration from rainfed cropland is substantially greater than in 2000, ranging from 1870–2040 km3/yr, depending on the scenario, and irrigation abstraction increases up to 194–330 km3/yr.
These findings point out the significant role of water appropriated for rainfed crop production in the continental water cycle, in contrast to the sum of water appropriated for irrigation. Furthermore, they suggest that it would be worthwhile to look for opportunities to reduce the amount of water evaporated and transpired from cropland to increase the “water productivity” of cropland. Finally, they indicate that under the given scenarios, this additional production is very likely to come at the cost of the extent of natural biomes and their associated ecosystem services.

Key words

Africa; agriculture; blue water; green water; hydrological modeling; LandSHIFT; land-use modeling; WaterGAP

Copyright © 2009 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087