Blog Poll: Is Technology the Answer to Growing More Food with Less Water?

Pool storing mountain rainwater for drip/sprinkling irrigation of tea trees in the People's Republic of China.
Pool storing mountain rainwater for drip/sprinkling irrigation of tea trees in the People's Republic of China.

By Yasmin Siddiqi

A majority of respondents think drip and sprinkler systems are the best solution.

In our January blog poll, we asked readers what they believed is the best way to grow more food with less water in Asia coinciding with last month’s Second Asian Irrigation Forum (AIF2).

Water resources are becoming increasingly scarce in Asia and the Pacific, mainly due to rapid population growth – which will bulge at 5.2 billion by 2050. About 80% of Asia’s finite water resources are currently used up by agriculture. As the region rapidly urbanizes, there will be more demand for more water from hungry mouths, thirsty cities and more energy for homes and industries. If we include the impacts of climate change, then we enter a new era in which increased variability in rainfall, temperature and water resources availability will place even more pressure on already scarce water resources.

To grow more food with less water, we have no option but to improve water use in agriculture by producing more food per drop of water. But how can we do this, given that water losses can reach up to 70% due to dilapidated irrigation infrastructure, weak management practices and low-cost recovery for water used by farmers? Participants at AIF2 looked at these challenges and presented examples of how developing member countries, farmers, knowledge partners and the private sector can make better use of water in agriculture.

Most of the respondents in our survey (54%) chose technology solutions like drip and sprinkler irrigation as the answer to Asia’s food and water security challenges. About a quarter (26%) opted for proper pricing and cost recovery; 11% picked laser land leveling; and only 8% supported removing energy subsidies for agriculture tube wells. The figures are rounded.

The water-saving benefits of drip and sprinkler irrigation are high – up to 30-65% compared to traditional systems. But the area of farmland under these technologies in South and Southeast Asia is only a fraction (3.1%) of the area under gravity-fed surface irrigation (94.9%). Uptake has been slow, mainly due to high initial costs and lack of access to parts and support services.

For instance, the total area under drip irrigation in India has increased by more than 100 times since the 1990s but its expansion remains limited. The Maharashtra state government is now providing subsidies for 50-60% of the costs so the poorest farmers can set up drip irrigation systems. Yet of the 3.2 million hectares of irrigated farmland in the state, drip irrigation is confined to only 18%. The main challenge is maintaining systems, since smallholder farmers usually make a one-time investment in the equipment, use it for three to four years, but then discard because it’s too expensive to repair or replace.

Also in India, Karnataka state last year took a bold step for water conservation by making drip irrigation mandatory in all irrigated areas. By developing a novel business model for sugar cane growers—with government and private sugar factories’ support—Karnataka plans to save about 5 billion cubic meters of water and almost $60 million in energy costs. The government and sugar factories have agreed to provide subsidies for the cost of the equipment, which is high at about $1,800 per hectare. They are also looking at corporate social responsibility funds to reduce the cost burden on growers. Coupled with the new policy and a business model with private sector participation, Karnataka is also considering full integration with the development of an agro-industrial corridor. This will enable global investors to take advantage of the likely increase in agricultural yield from the micro irrigation systems.

At a time when water and food security are critical for Asia, the integrated approach attempted in India opens a new door to the adoption of high-efficiency irrigation systems. What it clearly demonstrates is the need for clarity in national vision on water conservation, firm policy actions and most importantly the right incentives for sustainability of technologies.

Ultimately, it is these that dictate success or failure – rather than technology itself.