Agriculture requires a great deal of water. In fact, it uses 70% of the world’s freshwater supplies. For centuries farmers have found ingenious ways of making the best of the water available, but access to fresh water is becoming more and more unpredictable. Extreme weather events are on the rise, and drought is as much of a threat as flash flooding to our farms and food producers. In some countries, entire communities are beginning to migrate in search of a steady water supply for their crops.
In episode four of the BBC World News and bbc.com series, Follow the Food: It Never Rains, It Pours, renowned botanist, James Wong, investigates how farmers, scientists and engineers are attempting to completely change the way agriculture interacts with water – the way it’s used, sourced and stored.
Can we rethink how we use our water – for the protection of both our farms and our climate?
Solutions in India
To grow just a single kilo of rice takes 5000 litres of water, and it accounts for over a third of the water used in agriculture. The problem isn’t just the amount of water this crop uses, but the bacteria that lives in the flooded soil in which rice grows, are constantly producing methane, a massive greenhouse gas. In fact, 20% of all methane on the planet comes from paddy fields, and rice is the number one crop for greenhouse gas emissions.
In Southern India, where they’re suffering acute water shortages due to changes in monsoon rains, the state is subsidising drip irrigation for rice farmers.
Saravanakumar Mani, Region Manager at Netafim India South says: “Right now, 54% of the Indian regions are having high water stress. At the same time, we need to produce food for the increasing population. So, we need to adopt modern technology. We need to give the water to the plant, not to the soil.”
Farmer, Ravichandran Vanchinathan, is using the method called the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), which not only uses less fresh water, but also improves yield.
“Many farmers, because of water scarcity, have given up rice cultivation, thinking it’s a water guzzler. But, it is not so, it’s a myth. In SRI, we don’t irrigate the field as often, only as and when it’s needed. We call it alternating wetting and drying method and we use 30-40% less water.
Ravichandran pumps freshwater into the field intermittently rather than continuously flooding them like paddies. Rotating wet and dry periods also means the plant roots get more oxygen, which helps them thrive. And, planting young, single rice seedlings wider apart means extra space for canopy and root growth, producing bigger and healthier plants.
Remarkably, the SRI method appears to be producing more rice even though it uses fewer plants and less water. If paddy field alternatives like SRI or drip irrigation were rolled out across the globe, the water savings…
Read more:: Can agriculture overcome its own water problems?