Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean must rein in their thirsty agriculture sector to ensure water security, as extreme weather takes a toll on the region’s growing cities, experts said.

Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of global water use, consuming more than industry and households, according to the United Nations.

Although Latin America has one-third of the world’s freshwater, 34 million people in the region do not have access to the precious resource.

“If we’re going to fix something in the next 20 or 30 years, (water use for agriculture) is what we need to look at,” Fernando Miralles, director of the Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites at the University of Maryland, said during the World Water Week conference in Stockholm.

According to the U.N., demand for water is expected to increase by 55 percent by 2050, mainly due to growing urbanisation in developing countries.

Over the same time period, Latin America’s population – 80 percent of which lives in cities – isforecast to reach 784 million.

“Water security for Latin America is a critical issue for the economic development of our region,” said Sergio Campos of the Inter-American Development Bank.

Extreme weather events such as droughts, floods and hurricanes are becoming more frequent and intense, affecting more than a dozen Latin American cities over the last three years, Campos said.

Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo and Panama City have already experienced shortages of drinking water and electricity, and increasing food prices.

“As the population grows, the situation will become even worse over the coming years,” Campos said.

Latin America has to find water and energy solutions using “a more holistic and a more pragmatic approach” in order to achieve economic development and preserve the wellbeing of its people, Campos said.

According to Miralles, with effective management of water and hydroelectric dams, Latin America and the Caribbean have the potential to export excess water and energy to other parts of the world.

This article is published in collaboration with Thomson Reuters Foundation. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

To keep up with the Agenda subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

Author: Magda Mis is a Thomson Reuters Foundation correspondent, based in London. 

Image: Chickens sit over a water tank on a street during inspection of houses at the Limao neighborhood, in Sao Paulo. REUTERS/Nacho Doce