Pay Drechsel, scientist at the Colombo-based International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and co-author of the study, published in Environmental Research Letters in November, says urban and peri-urban agricultural areas worldwide are larger than the total area under rice cultivation in South Asia.
The paper recognises a global trend of food production taking on an increasingly urban flavour, with an estimated 456 million hectares — an area about the size of the European Union — being under cultivation in and around the world’s cities, challenging the rural orientation of most agriculture research and development work.
South and East Asia comprise 49 per cent of urban irrigated croplands and 56 per cent of the non-urban irrigated areas globally. These two regions account for 26 per cent of urban rain-fed croplands and 22 per cent of non-urban rain-fed croplands.
Drechsel says, “The study documents that 70 per cent of households in developing countries are engaged in some kind of farming and food production and challenges the notion that food production, far from being a rural phenomenon, is commonly occurring within cities.”
The study says irrigation is more common on city farms than rural farms, intensifying water demands in sprawling urban zones. It further highlights how urban agriculture — particularly in South Asia — contributes to food security, puts marginal lands into productive use, assists in flood control, increases income opportunities for the poor and strengthens urban biodiversity.
Drechsel says India is a good example of an urbanising country which is already more peri-urban than rural. “Feeding the cities with food and water is changing the Indian agricultural landscape. There is more competition between urban and rural needs for water and there are strong urban markets but also significant pollution. Urban and peri-urban farming is operating in this interface.”
The study shows that three out of four cities surveyed in the global South were using wastewater for irrigation, predominately for local market sale and livelihood support.
“For example, downstream of Hyderabad in India, the only available water for irrigation is the city’s wastewater which is only partially treated and used for the production of fodder grass and rice, supporting about 50,000 people.”
A more recent study shows that in India, the conscious and safe use of wastewater could help irrigate an additional 1.1 million hectares.
In Sri Lanka, Drechsel says, urbanisation is most obvious in the island’s Western Province where urban farming is also receiving policy recognition as a means to support subsistence needs or as additional income source, mostly for women.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South Asia desk.