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To Prevent a Food Crisis, We Need to Increase Water Efficiency

Since it takes 1,000 tons of water to produce 1 ton of grain, it is not surprising that 70 percent of world water use is devoted to irrigation -- a practice we can do better.

With water shortages constraining food production growth, the world needs an effort to raise water productivity similar to the one that nearly tripled land productivity over the last half-century. Since it takes 1,000 tons of water to produce 1 ton of grain, it is not surprising that 70 percent of world water use is devoted to irrigation. Thus, raising irrigation efficiency is central to raising water productivity overall.

Data on the efficiency of surface of water projects—that is, dams that deliver water to farmers through a network of canals—show that crop usage of irrigation water never reaches 100 percent simply because some irrigation water evaporates, some percolates downward, and some runs off. Water policy analysts Sandra Postel and Amy Vickers found that "surface water irrigation efficiency ranges between 25 and 40 percent in India, Mexico, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Thailand; between 40 and 45 percent in Malaysia and Morocco; and between 50 and 60 percent in Israel, Japan, and Taiwan."

Irrigation water efficiency is affected not only by the type and condition of irrigation systems but also by soil type, temperature, and humidity. In hot arid regions, the evaporation of irrigation water is far higher than in cooler humid regions.

In a May 2004 meeting, China's Minister of Water Resources Wang Shucheng outlined for me in some detail the plans to raise China's irrigation efficiency from 43 percent in 2000 to 51 percent in 2010 and then to 55 percent in 2030. The steps he described included raising the price of water, providing incentives for adopting more irrigation-efficient technologies, and developing the local institutions to manage this process. Reaching these goals, he felt, would assure China's future food security.

Raising irrigation efficiency typically means shifting from the less efficient flood or furrow systems to overhead sprinklers or drip irrigation, the gold standard of irrigation efficiency. Switching from flood or furrow to low-pressure sprinkler systems reduces water use by an estimated 30 percent, while switching to drip irrigation typically cuts water use in half.

As an alternative to furrow irrigation, a drip system also raises yields because it provides a steady supply of water with minimal losses to evaporation. Since drip systems are both labor-intensive and water-efficient, they are well suited to countries with a surplus of labor and a shortage of water. A few small countries—Cyprus, Israel, and Jordan—rely heavily on drip irrigation. Among the big three agricultural producers, this more-efficient technology is used on 1-3 percent of irrigated land in India and China and on roughly 4 percent in the United States.

In recent years, small-scale drip-irrigation systems—literally a bucket with flexible plastic tubing to distribute the water—have been developed to irrigate small vegetable gardens with roughly 100 plants (covering 25 square meters). Somewhat larger systems using drums irrigate 125 square meters. In both cases, the containers are elevated slightly, so that gravity distributes the water. Large-scale drip systems using plastic lines that can be moved easily are also becoming popular. These simple systems can pay for themselves in one year. By simultaneously reducing water costs and raising yields, they can dramatically raise incomes of smallholders.

Sandra Postel estimates that drip technology has the potential to profitably irrigate 10 million hectares of India's cropland, nearly one tenth of the total. She sees a similar potential for China, which is now also expanding its drip irrigated area to save scarce water.

In the Punjab, with its extensive double cropping of wheat and rice, fast-falling water tables led the state farmers' commission in 2007 to recommend a delay in transplanting rice from May to late June or early July. This would reduce irrigation water use by roughly one third, since transplanting would coincide with the arrival of the monsoon. The resulting reduction in groundwater use would help stabilize the water table, which has fallen from 5 meters below the surface down to 30 meters in parts of the state.

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