Growing More with Less - Can Innovations Make a Difference?

An ADB-supported solar irrigation project in Sumba, Indonesia.
An ADB-supported solar irrigation project in Sumba, Indonesia.

By Yasmin Siddiqi

Growing more food with less water is the only solution to feed hungry urban populations and quench thirst for energy in developing Asia. Innovative approaches to managing energy and water can provide solutions.

Developing economies, population growth and rapid urbanization are increasing demands on water resources for food and energy production. By 2050, agriculture will need to produce 60% more food globally, and developing countries will have to double their food productions to feed their growing populations. Agriculture is the biggest consumer of water, using up more than 80% of water resources in Asia. It is also a big user of energy – recent research shows that in places like Punjab, Pakistan, about 20% of the province’s entire power is used in agriculture.

As people in Asia get richer, so do their diets. Eating more meat means using more water, as producing 1 kg of meat needs six times more water than 1 kg of rice. With climate change impacts on the amount of water available in the future, growing more food with less water is the only solution to feed hungry urban populations and quench the thirst for energy. Innovative approaches to managing energy and water can provide solutions.

More than one-third of the world’s 303 million hectares irrigated area is served by groundwater, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. Of this, over 70% is in Asia, and India consumes the largest amount of groundwater, over a quarter of the global total. Pumping groundwater is hugely energy-intensive – Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan annually pump about 210–250 km3 of groundwater, consuming almost 70 billion kilowatts per hour annually, close to $4 billion. There are also climate impacts, such as in India, where lifting water for irrigation alone can contribute up to 6% of total national greenhouse gas emissions.

The Surya Raitha scheme in Karnataka, India is an innovative way to manage groundwater and energy. Farmers are provided renewable energy in the form of solar irrigation pumps, and this—coupled with drip irrigation, which uses much less water—is a good combination to reduce consumption. But most innovative is the power buy-back scheme, which encourages farmers to be efficient, with the government buying back excess energy produced by the solar irrigation pump. This means farmers can pump only when they need to  irrigate, and any extra energy is also purchased – much like a crop. Farmers are paid to conserve energy and water. The scheme is new, but holds much promise for scaling up in the region, especially in countries that rely heavily on groundwater.

The power of innovation often lies in its simplicity, and a good example is laser land leveling. Flat fields allows irrigation water to flow faster and more evenly to all crops. Research by the International Water Management Institute in South Asia shows stark improvements in crop production, with average annual incomes from the laser leveled fields increasing by 22% compared to non-leveled fields. Clearly there is potential here, but uptake of such simple techniques has been slow and sporadic. South Asia has benefited greatly, central Asia remains far behind. More action is required to work closely with governments, the private sector and farmers to find solutions and provide the right incentives to adopt this beneficial yet simple practice.

Using satellite data and field measurements allows us to more easily measure how much water is used to produce crops. This is an exciting tool, which ultimately could provide a map for Asia and the Pacific, highlighting regions where more crop per drop is produced. The technology would also give farmers and government agencies instant access through the mobile phone network to data on irrigation performance, crop production, and market prices. This opens up opportunities to better measure the impacts of investments in irrigation, providing before and after figures for the amount of crop produced per unit of water. So far, such measurements have remained elusive, but this approach—new for the Asia—is the way forward.

As more users compete for water resources in the future, producing more with less becomes the overriding goal. Irrigation has remained in the doldrums over the past decades, but now it has to move into the fast lane. Innovations, whether smart approaches to incentivizing farmers, simple improvements in managing land or using more advanced approaches like satellite data and computer simulations, provide a new world of opportunities.

The challenge is sharing knowledge, taking risks to adopt new ideas, and scaling up.