Demand for water has increased nearly eightfold over the past 100 years. Irrigation for agriculture is by far the most consumptive use of freshwater across the globe. This increased use of water has been heavily incentivized through the use of government and corporate subsidies to provide food for citizens. The use of the water is made incredibly cheap, and the price of the food products produced is kept artificially high to incentivize farmers to produce as much as possible. These subsidies are seen by many people as beneficial, as they generally lower the cost of food for the average consumer, and keep food readily available. However, there can be many drawbacks to the overuse of water for irrigation.
Many of the costs of water overuse are not borne by those that use the water. The environmental degradation that is caused by the reduction of stream flows is experienced by those downstream of the point of water use. If those upstream use more than their fair share, those downstream will not have enough, and we run the risk of streams running completely dry. This means that money provided by subsidies can be directly harming the environment and people downstream, and should be looked at very carefully. While there are many positive effects of irrigation subsidies, the negative externalities must also be considered.
The advance of climate change puts extra pressure on these water costs, as rainfall patterns change. Climate models show places that have historically have had enough water are undergoing longer droughts, and water costs are not being adjusted with the future predicted supply. As we develop government subsidies, we should be focusing on ways to reduce water consumption that are still effective for growing crops. Subsidies should incentivize not just high production, but water conservation practices, like drip irrigation, cover crops, low soil disturbance, and crop rotation. Subsidies can work well, but they must incentivize behavior that will meet our changing goals for equity and fairness in a changing world.