Home Database Adaptation options Improved water retention capacity in the agricultural landscape
Adaptation option

Improved water retention capacity in the agricultural landscape

Droughts impact water resources and agriculture production, cause soil erosion, reduce carbon sequestration and contribute to land degradation. Southern Europe is expected to be especially vulnerable, with higher risks of reduced water supply and increased demands for irrigation. On the other hand, increasing flood risks will further contribute to the need for diverse management practices to reduce runoff especially during peak precipitation events. 

Improving water retention in landscapes and in farmland areas can help mitigate floods, alleviate drought, reduce soil erosion and improve the environmental quality of the system.  

The use of water storage technology, landscape design and innovation can create water drainage and redirection of run-offs. Adaptation in landscape features decreases runoff and erosion, improves the retention of moisture and nutrients, and improves the soil water uptake. 

Water retention capability of the entire landscape can be improved by: 

  • terracing and contour ploughing. This is a soil preparation to slow or prevent rapid surface runoff. The delayed runoff allows the water to percolate into the soil. The plough rows run perpendicular rather than parallel to slopes, generally resulting in furrows that curve around the land; 
  • maintaining or rebuilding old drainage systems; 
  • establishing diverse water flow regimes; 
  • restoring natural water retention spaces (ponds, lakes, reservoirs); 
  • setting up flood control reservoirs or water impoundments, typically with large capacity for storage and control of high water volumes; 
  • expanding/restoring/adapting floodplains. 

On farmland, water storage enables farmers to store water when it is plentiful and make it available when it is scarce. According to FAO, three categories of small-scale storage can be identified:  

  1. soil moisture storage (encouraging water infiltration that increases the proportion of rainfall entering soil storage, where it can later be used directly by plants) 
  1. groundwater storage (allowing infiltration past the root zone of crops to percolate in the aquifers)  
  1. surface storage (through natural or man-made ponds or tanks) 

This option is strictly related to other measures that preserve soil moisture, and minimise soil erosion and degradation in agricultural areas (Conservation Agriculture) as well as to other measures that enhance the natural functions of rivers and floodplains, helping mitigate flood risks (Rehabilitation and restoration of rivers and floodplains). 

This option requires high coordination between different governance levels, to ensure sustainable and harmonised spatial planning of the whole region. The implementation of this measure should be fit to the specific local context and well-integrated in national and subnational land use regulations and plans. 

Additional Details
Reference information

Adaptation Details

IPCC categories

Institutional: Government policies and programmes, Structural and physical: Ecosystem-based adaptation options

Stakeholder participation

Landscape features and structural changes in the land use of an area require cooperation and trust among farmers and other stakeholders in the area such as surrounding inhabitants, local industries or landowners. If the creation of larger structural projects such as reservoirs or flood paths is needed, this will require government or landowner permissions. Water storage options could also benefit for local businesses or inhabitants and involve a regional or municipal investment/collaboration. 

Success and Limiting Factors

In most cases, this type of measure is considered promising because the design is often multi-functional and thus combines different interests (see the section on Costs and Benefits). Implementation of landscape features is often implemented in combination with buffer zones or habitat corridors which contribute to local biodiversity, landscape connectivity and soil moisture retention capacity. Integrated spatial planning of the whole territory that incorporates farmland water storage structures into the landscape can favour the initiative’s success. 

Implementing this option requires careful site-specific assessments to achieve the expected benefits. Soil and slope characteristics, crop types, and local weather conditions must be considered before implementing water runoff designs and location decisions for water storage or ponds.  Micro design of measures, which considers local conditions, like where to establish new features in the landscape, is necessary because the risk of adverse effects exists if not designed accurately Risks include flooding or unintended water flows which end up in agricultural areas or inhabited areas. Care needs to be taken in the design of landscape features to ensure that the location of groundwater storage is also safe from these effects if overflow occurs or leakage or freeze. In addition, if the option is not correctly implemented (without proper planning and considering all ecosystem components), risks of damage to agricultural crops are possible, especially in flat or flood prone areas, due to the creation of higher groundwater tables. Under certain conditions (ex. close to the sea or ocean), some of the proposed water retention options may affect salinity, changing the soil quality very drastically or making the earth unsuitable for some crops unless irrigation plans are appropriately adapted to the new hydro-geological forms. Terracing reduces run-off and increases water infiltration, but changes in the hydrological regime may have a significant visual impact in contrast with the surrounding natural vegetation and traditional plantations. 

On the broader level, adequate landowners’ compensation is necessary, and projects must address not only design and implementation but also the behavioural change of land users. This option may require substantial investments depending on the water retention option applied. An issue in planning and implementation is the complexity of governance and coordination as private and public parties usually may be involved. Gathering support from the many stakeholders involved and planning for the investment may be a limiting factor.  

Costs and Benefits

Beyond climate change adaptation against floods and droughts, other benefits are associated with implementing this. 

The benefits of this adaptation include better water retention or storage for times of drought; and flood disaster risk mitigation, provision of blue-green ecosystem services, reduced need for irrigation, and improvement of soil quality. The latter in turn, supports soil biodiversity, increases the presence of natural enemies, helps nutrient storage, and generally supports crop growth.  

This measure contributes to several EU policies (Natura 2000, Common Agricultural Policy see the section on legal aspects below). These options may also reduce agriculture production fluctuations, bringing farmers security and makes food production more reliable. Agricultural production can increase, often in neighbouring regions.  

This option is generally considered very effective even if some measures have high entrance costs. In fact, costs are highly variable, depending on the scale of the intervention and the selected measures. Efforts and costs for maintenance should also be considered for the long-term effective planning of the measures. 

An example of a cost-benefit assessment of water retention improvement integrated into the landscape can be found in the case study Tamera water retention landscape to restore the water cycle and reduce vulnerability to droughts. 

The EU Common Agricultural Policy can foster this option, which supports initiatives that tackle climate change and the sustainable management of natural resources, as well as maintain rural areas and landscapes across the EU.  

Under theGreen infrastructure EU Strategy, there is more attention to measures that aim to enhance the functioning of natural processes and ecosystems so that water can better infiltrate and be stored. Natural Water Retention Measures (NWRM) can be used to contribute to the objectives of the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) and/or the EU Floods Directive. Funding might also be sought from the European Regional Development Fund, the European Social Fund and the Cohesion Fund.  

Management measures must fit into the specific local context and must be compliant with national and subnational regulations and plans (e.g. spatial planning, Natura 2000 sites, river basin management plans, flood risk management plans).


Implementation Time

Depending on the type of landscape features being implemented, the time frame could be short (in the case of contouring practices, possibly in one season); however, with larger projects involving water storage, drainage systems, flow regimes, or reservoirs, more stakeholders involved, and research needing to be conducted in the planning stages this could take several years to implement- depending on the costs and number of stakeholders involved. 

Life Time

Lifetime can be 20 years or more, depending on management complexity, capacity and maintenance.  

Reference information


Iglesias, A. and Garrote, L. (2015) ‘Adaptation strategies for agricultural water management under climate change in Europe’, Agricultural Water Management, 155, pp. 113–124. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agwat.2015.03.014. 

Falloon, P. and Betts, R. (2010) ‘Climate impacts on European agriculture and water management in the context of adaptation and mitigation—The importance of an integrated approach’, Science of The Total Environment, 408(23), pp. 5667–5687. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2009.05.002. 

Rzętała, M. (2021). Anthropogenic Water Reservoirs in Poland. In: Zeleňáková, M., Kubiak-Wójcicka, K., Negm, A.M. (eds) Quality of Water Resources in Poland. Springer Water. Springer, Cham. https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.wur.nl/10.1007/978-3-030-64892-3_4 

Staccione, A. et al. (2021) ‘Natural water retention ponds for water management in agriculture: A potential scenario in Northern Italy’, Journal of Environmental Management, 292, p. 112849. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvman.2021.112849. 

Trnka, Miroslav, et al (2022) Increasing Available Water Capacity as a Factor for Increasing Drought Resilience or Potential Conflict over Water Resources under Present and Future Climate Conditions.” Agricultural Water Management, vol. 264, p. 107460, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agwat.2022.1074

Published in Climate-ADAPT Jun 07 2016   -   Last Modified in Climate-ADAPT Aug 17 2023

Document Actions