Water Saving Methods in Agriculture: Effective Ways to Reduce Water Consumption on Farms
Although water scarcity already impacts about one-third of the global population, the world is poised to experience even more fresh water constraints due to issues such as a growing global population, pollution, and also drought due to global climate change.
Just like the global energy use, we must take swift and decisive action to prevent water wasting that is occurring around the world to be able to provide a sustainable future for future generations and the environment.
Modern agriculture accounts for 70 percent of global water resource use and large amount of this water is actually wasted through excessive runoff or evapotranspiration, we can make a huge impact on global freshwater supplies if we re-evaluate how we are using water in agriculture and take water conservation seriously.
By improving water use and management in agriculture, humanity will increase the water resources that are available to those that need it the most, help developing communities around the world in a sustainable manner, reduce soil erosion, reduce conflicts over natural resources, and help to ensure food security for everyone.
Important measures to conserve water in agriculture
Since agriculture is one of the largest users of freshwater on our planet, it is important to change farming practices to conserve water instead of wasting it. Many farmers are already implementing wise water management in their farming operations and are employing many of the following practices.
The following list discusses a number of ways that farmers can reduce water consumption on farms throughout the world.
#1 Making irrigation more efficient
To reduce the amount of water that is used in agriculture, irrigation must be made as efficient as possible.
- Existing irrigation systems must be efficient and contain no leaks that would contribute to water wasting.
- Irrigation systems can be optimized to water only when and where water is needed. Watering schedules can be adapted to allow for watering only when it is necessary. Computer applications are now available to adjust irrigation systems to respond according to precipitation and moisture in the soil.
- Soil moisture can be directly measured to determine the current water needs of individual crops.
- Drip irrigation lines can be used that only water a plant’s roots instead of the surrounding soil as well. This helps to avoid unnecessary water evaporation from the soil.
- Ground cover fabrics can help to reduce evapotranspiration as well as to block weeds from growing between crop plants.
#2 Supporting healthy soil
Healthy soil contains important structures that retain water much more efficiently than depleted and heavily tilled soil. Healthy soil has a structure to it that soaks up water and retains it much more effectively than degraded soil does. Critical to maintaining a healthy soil ecology is supplying the soil with plenty of organic matter that nourishes the soil and soil organisms.
Methods that can help to maintain healthy soil include adding compost, residue management, conservation tillage, and no tilling farming techniques. The use of contours and swales on the farming landscape also help to hold water high on the landscape and to prevent erosion.
By only allowing partial tillage and by retaining some crop residue on the soil surface, farmers help to increase the water absorption of the soil and reduce problems of evaporation, erosion, and compaction.
#3 Applying permaculture farming methods
Many permaculture farming methods, such as swales built on contour, inherently retain water in the landscape, reduce (or even eliminate) the need for supplemental watering of crops, and help to restore aquifers.
Hugelkultur techniques, which essentially involve growing plants in mounds of woody debris buried in soil, retain moisture quite well and provide excellent nutrition to the soil. This is a specialized cultivation technique that involves burying diverse woody materials in soil, such as logs and branches, and then planting in the soil on top of the buried mound.
The woody material inside the mound soaks up water like a sponge and creates productive growing conditions. Some tree species work better than other.
These systems are often used in small scale growing systems such as in gardens, but some people have experienced success even when applying hugelkultur techniques on the farm-scale, such as Sepp Holzer, a farmer from Austria.
Watch this educational video about Holzer’s farm:
Credit: Youtube / Richard Perkins
#4 Growing more water efficient crops according to regional climate
Many of the commonly traded agricultural crops grown today are grown in large plots of monocultures and require large amounts of water to produce them. By growing a variety of less thirsty crops, including perennial crops with deep roots, this should reduce the demand for water in agriculture. For example, grapes and olives are crops that require less water for production than tomatoes.
It is also important to grow crops that are well-suited to local climate conditions. In any case, farmers should consider growing crops that are the most appropriate for the local climate. This means not growing thirsty crops in a very arid region, but instead growing those crops that are naturally drought tolerant.
For example, it makes the most sense to grow those crops in a desert-type climate that tolerate more hot and dry conditions, such as fig trees and moringa trees. Other examples of drought tolerant crops are olives, tepary beans, quinoa, Gold Coast okra, millet, sorghum, and Armenian cucumbers.
#5 Dry farming
Dry farming relies only on moisture present in the soil to produce crops when rain is scarce. Implementation of such a method involves implementing specific types of tilling and focusing on microclimates.
#6 Harvesting rainwater
Rainwater harvesting can be used for both small and large farms for farming tasks such as herd watering and irrigation.
Farmers can create ponds and wetlands that capture rainwater throughout the year that can be used during the dry season. Such ponds and wetlands can also provide habitat for waterfowl and other aquatic wildlife. Building swales on contour offers an opportunity to capture and hold water high on the landscape and to recharge groundwater supplies.
#7 Building permanent raised crop beds with a rainwater and greywater capturing component
In some arid or semi-arid areas, such as in Africa or in certain countries in other parts of the developing world like Egypt, communities and families are growing food for themselves using raised keyhole bed gardens.
These gardens provide a way to produce food in regions that are challenging to grow crops in, and also allow for the capture of compostable organic materials, rainwater, and grey water to enrich and water the keyhole garden.
#8 Rotational grazing
If grazing pastures are managed well, they will have increased absorption ability and decreased runoff, which makes them inherently more resistant to drought.
Other water-saving features of good grazing management includes increasing organic matter in the soil and forage cover.
#9 Composting and mulching
When organic matter such as compost and mulch is added to soils, the structure of that soil will improve and has an increased water-holding capacity. Mulch materials such as straw or wood chips are excellent choices because they help to reduce moisture evaporation and also break down and increase the water-holding capacity of the soil.
Another common water-conserving practice for farmers is to cover the soil with black plastic mulch covers, which reduce evaporation and suppress weeds.
#10 Planting cover crops
Cover crops help to reduce weeds, and increase soil fertility and compaction, allowing for easier penetration of water into the soil and improving its capacity to hold water.
#11 Going organic
It has been found in a study by the Rodale Institute that organic fields not only have higher yields than conventional fields, organic fields retain greater soil moisture, helping to replenish groundwater supplies.
#12 Addressing and reducing food waste
In today’s world, approximately one third of food that is produced is wasted. By reducing the amount of food we waste, we also reduce the amount of water, land, and energy that is used to produce the food.