Editor's Note: This blog post was originally published for Johns Hopkins University Water Institute. Contributors include: Andrew Maddocks, Moushumi, Chaudhury, Paul Reig and Taís Pinheiro.

Latin America is facing a series of interconnected risks related to water, climate change, and agriculture that could potentially jeopardize the region’s food security. Rapid economic development and a growing Latin American middle class are creating more competition between companies, farms, and people for limited water supplies.

Additionally, most studies project that climate change will generally drive temperatures higher and shift precipitation patterns, potentially reducing the number of productive acres across Latin America. For example, dry conditions have already cut into Brazil’s grain and coffee production. By 2020, Brazil could see soybean production drop by 24 percent and wheat production by as much as 41 percent.

In light of these challenges, the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) and the World Resources Institute (WRI) convened a workshop in July with a group of representatives from the Ministries of Environment and Agriculture from Central and South America, including Belize, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Peru.

The workshop helped focus attention on three key challenges:

  • Increasing demand for water from mining and domestic users, coupled with overexploitation of groundwater, poses major challenges to the agricultural sector.

  • A lack of data, interpretation of the data, and effective integrated water governance are the main barriers for government action on implementing climate adaptation solutions.

  • The need for governments and scientists to work more closely together to bridge the gap between science and policy and make better use of the publicly-available tools to support decision making.

Better Data and Understanding Needed Around Climate Change

WRI began the workshop by presenting its latest research on future water-related risks to agriculture from climate change and development. The majority of the Ministries of Agriculture and Environment representatives said that they were aware of water-related risks to agriculture and that their country-level experience matched WRI’s regional-level analysis. The participants noted that WRI’s session helped them more clearly understand the future scenarios and the links between water, agriculture, climate change, and socio-economic growth.

Participants brought real-world water problems to light. Farmers, one ministry staffer said, are aware that traditional agricultural practices will become less and less productive as the pace of climate change increases. However, these farmers need more information on climate change scenarios and links to agricultural to properly prepare. Another said that local decision-making will be very difficult without more reliable baseline supply and demand data. Several said that countries may collect different kinds of water data but not share it across national borders.

Looking for Answers

The workshop participants reviewed WRI Aqueduct project data and maps on­­­ projected water availability for 2020, 2030, and 2040, which are set to publish in early 2015. These maps will provide information around future water supply, demand, stress, and seasonal variability. Aqueduct’s projections, participants said, can address some of the data gaps around climate change and development scenarios.

These new data on future water availability, coupled with crop information, could help national and regional-level officials take the best courses of action to manage potential changes in crop yields and losses. WRI’s analysis can also guide water managers’ future planning in the region.

Participants expressed interest in incorporating country-specific data and short-term forecasts of two to five years into WRI’s data on projected water availability. Short-term forecasting is, however, more uncertain than longer-term projections.

A Global Concern

These regional challenges affect not only Latin America but the rest of the world. Argentina, Chile, and other Latin American countries are global breadbaskets for soybeans, coffee, sugar, and more. According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, Latin American food and agricultural product exports were approximately $77.5 US billion in 2011 or 15 percent of the world’s total export value. In order to sustain and grow global food production, countries need to begin adapting to these challenges now.

Our ability to meet the global food challenge depends on having the right information available and understanding that information. As a next step, IICA and WRI hosted another workshop in September where decision-makers explored possible policy scenarios and climate adaptation options for the agricultural sector using Aqueduct’s projected water availability maps.