Counting the Drops
Wise Water Use in Agriculture
With approximately 70 percent of the Earth’s fresh water consumed by the agricultural sector, exploding population growth, and increasing demand for food, the time for improving the efficiency of water usage is now.
The word “sustainability” is used a lot today for everything from running a business to green energy such as wind and solar power, but what does it really mean?
Investopedia defines sustainability – in the broadest possible terms – as “the ability of something to maintain or ‘sustain’ itself over time.” Others say it’s the ability to exploit natural resources without destroying an area’s ecological balance.
Although the term is vast, many experts agree sustainability must be supported by three pillars, which can be described as environmental, economic, and social, or more snappily identified as planet, profits, and people.
In agriculture, sustainability takes on an even greater meaning.
Everything from crop-destroying insects to floods, fires, and drought that turns soil to dust, makes the difference between farmers surviving, or sinking into bankruptcy. And while weather has never been predictable, climate change has made agriculture more of a would-be calculated guessing game than ever.
For countries such as Australia, drought is not new, but that doesn’t make it any less devastating for farmers and the entire agricultural sector.
According to National Museum Australia, there were 27 drought years between 1788 and 1860, and another 10 major droughts or more in the years from 1860 to 2000. In the century and a quarter since enduring the worst drought – from 1895 to 1903 – in the history of the country since European settlement, the land down under has had to deal with the ‘millennium drought’ from 2001 to 2009, and another major drought in 2017.
These prolonged dry spells have spurred further efforts from the government to recycle water and increase desalination.
While it is impossible to ‘drought-proof’ an entire continent, it is possible to make areas prone to extended dry spells less vulnerable through calculated, sensible water conservation strategies.
In 2012, just a month before they declared Australia drought-free, the government’s Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry issued a report, Drought in Australia: Context, policy and management. Other reports followed in the coming years, including Drought in Australia: Australian Government Drought Response, Resilience and Preparedness Plan.
Although not as prone to drought as Morocco, Uganda, Pakistan, or Ethiopia, Australia has experienced its share of arid conditions. Over the decades, Australia has taken the many hard lessons it has learned and used them to mitigate the devastation of people, animals, and crops.
In March, the Australian Government announced the Future Drought Fund. A $29 million initiative, innovative projects designed for drought preparation will share portions of the money, funded through the Government’s $5 billion Future Drought Fund (FDF).
“We want Australian farmers, and the communities that depend on them, to thrive through future droughts,” says Minister for Agriculture and Northern Australia David Littleproud in a media release.
Funding projects including aerobic rice production, managing dams, different crop rotations, and determining least amount of water needed for almond trees, the Minister says that Australia is “investing in projects that will enable drought-related technologies and tools to be used by farmers and agribusinesses around the country.
“We are also seeing atmospheric water harvested for community drinking water and cultivating drought-resilient native crops, such as edible wattle seeds, perennial grasses, and wild yams, for use as gluten-free flour and foods. These are just some of the innovative ideas with the potential to deliver broad-scale agricultural change.”
For the agricultural sector to not only survive but thrive requires tenacity and planning for droughts before they happen.
Some places experience longer, more severe droughts than others, lasting not just months but years. This is not only harmful to farmers and their productivity, profitability, and physical and mental well-being but can also crush entire communities.
Less being earned means less to spend anywhere. In Australia, where prolonged dry spells are the norm, not the exception, the government has many plans in place to support agriculture.
These include the National Drought Agreement (NDA). Replacing an earlier agreement, the 2018 NDA serves as a commitment to Australia’s state and territory governments “to develop policies and programs that position farmers to plan for and manage risk; and prepare for, manage and recover from drought,” according to the Drought in Australia report.
Wide-ranging objectives include drought preparedness, consistency of drought policy, natural resource management, services to mitigate the impact of drought on farmers and farming communities, and much more, including time-limited support payments, tax concessions, and loans.
Far from being a handout to the agricultural sector, the NDA states’ industry organizations and leaders provide information to farmers on drought preparedness – including with regard to their business, families, and workers; on drought management and recovery; on developing, implementing, and maintaining drought plans; and on keeping themselves informed about any new measures.
With an attitude born of necessity, Australians have taken a sensible approach to water for years.
Leaders in water use and conservation, Australians are also pioneers in greywater. Instead of running taps to wash dishes, do laundry, and then watch the water disappear down the drain, many households have sand and other filtration systems.
These remove detergents and reclaim the water to a holding tank. It can be used to irrigate gardens, or wash farm vehicles.
With better – and costlier – systems, the water can be reused to flush toilets and wash clothes. It is estimated just one Australian household produces 400 liters of greywater every day. Cleaning and re-purposing save not only water but money.
Global climate change and extreme heat, cold, floods, and droughts are forcing farmers to rethink the use and conservation of water. This is especially true in California, which requires year-round irrigation since summer rainfall can be as measly as a mere quarter-inch (six mm).
Recent years have seen more changes in how the agricultural sector handles this precious resource. In her book Agricultural Finance: From Crops to Land, Water and Infrastructure, mathematician and professor Hélyette Geman notes trends in irrigation.
These include greater efficiencies through pressurized irrigation and more efficient methods such as drip/trickle systems. While requiring more capital investment, drip/trickle systems, “reduce the amount of water needed for a given crop yield and lower the amount of energy required in pumping the water to the destination site,” she writes.
Other systems, such as subsurface drip, provide uniform land irrigation, while central pivot systems – the main irrigation method used on corn in America’s Midwest – do not irrigate all the land in a specific area as the system rotates.
In agriculture, water-use efficiencies take on many forms, from the rudimentary (collecting rainwater for irrigation) to expensive technological systems.
In developing countries, agricultural water management (AWM) is vital to ensuring that crops and animals receive the amount of water necessary to ensure food security while balancing productivity and conservation.
According to the World Bank, “Irrigated agriculture represents 20 percent of the total cultivated land and contributes 40 percent of the total food produced worldwide. Irrigated agriculture is, on average, at least twice as productive per unit of land as rainfed agriculture, thereby allowing for more production intensification and crop diversification.”
Factors such as global population increases, climate change, and urbanization will place greater demands on the agricultural sector – and the need for clean water to grow crops, and maintain life.
Fast disappearing are the days of farmers irrigating fields and hoping for a bumper crop.
Today’s agricultural sector demands a combination of science and experience to ensure correct management of soil-water-plant nutrients. It requires advanced irrigation systems such as drip irrigation, crop-specific scheduled irrigation, and even soil moisture neutron probes – a device containing americium-241 and beryllium – to measure the amount of water in soil with pinpoint accuracy.
According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which spearheads global efforts to fight hunger and bolster food security, food production will have to increase 60 percent to meet our growing population – and wise water use will play a key role.