Five Innovations that Conserve Water While Improving Harvests

By Grant Potter and Graham Salinger

Globally, the use of water for agriculture is surpassing sustainable levels .With increasing pressures on the water supply, farmers are challenged to find new ways to get more crops per drop. Only 4 percent of the land is equipped for irrigation, leaving farmers at the mercy of a limited water supply.

No single innovation can conserve enough water to end the global water crisis, but worldwide there are a number of innovations that are helping farmers maximize their water usage and strengthen food security.

Today, Nourishing the Planet introduces five innovations that are helping farmers conserve water and improve their harvest.

Innovations that help farmers with greater water retention are essential to agricultural growth and the health of crops. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

1. Use more Indigenous Crops: The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter suggests that farmers focus on using indigenous crops to increase land productivity. Growing indigenous crops and diversifying cropping systems are proven ways for farmers to create a more drought resistant harvest while also insuring that they have a variety of crops for food and income. With 70 percent of the worlds food supply coming from corn, wheat, and rice, crop diversification that emphasizes the use of indigenous crops not only helps to conserve water, it also helps produce a more sustainable harvest. Vegetables typically have shorter life cycles than other crops and typically faster growing, requiring less irrigation. Abdou Tenkouano of AVRDC –World Vegetable Center, points out  in Chapter 3 of State of the Word 201: Innovations that Nourish The Planet, that indigenous vegetables adapt better to climate change because they are more drought resistant than hybrid varieties.


Indigenous Crops in Action: A number of organizations are working on innovations to help farmers take advantage of the benefits offered by indigenous vegetables. AVRDC –The World Vegetable Centre, for example, breeds indigenous vegetables to improve their quality while making them more adaptable to extreme temperature changes. Slow Food International helps producers bring their indigenous crops to market by connecting food producers with consumers. The spider plant, indigenous to Eastern Africa, is just one of many indigenous crops that show promise as farmers face the challenge of water scarcity. High in vitamins and proteins, the spider plant is high in nutritional value and can endure extreme temperatures and drought. The spider plant also grows within a few weeks of planting and requires relatively little irrigation. As the spider plant demonstrates, the economic, environmental and nutritional benefits of indigenous crops hold promise for conserving water while improving harvest

2. Find more effective ways to retain rain water: Climate remains a major factor in crop productivity and as climate change continues to strain agricultural production, it is important for farmers to find ways to use rainwater more effectively. In sub-Saharan Africa, a region where only 15-30 percent of rainfall is being productively used by crops, techniques that enhance soil fertility and water use are especially important for food security.

Water Retention in Action: In Africa’s Sahel region, a dry area covering the southern edge of the Sahara desert that stretches from Senegal’s Atlantic coast to the Ethiopian highlands, farmers are using innovative planting methods to reverse years of degradation. Beginning in the 1980’s farmers in Burkina Faso and Niger began planting their crops in zai pits. The zia pits, which are dug into the ground in rows and filled with organic material, are especially convenient because farmers can start making them during the dry season. These pits can retain water for long periods of time, while increasing soil fertility. Farmers in the Sahel also constructed stone structures that helped to capture water runoff and retain organic material in the soil. Together these innovations are helping return this once barren land into thriving farmland.

3. Advances in Irrigation Technology: Recent technological innovations are helping improve water accessibility for small-scale farms in water-scarce areas.  Treadle pumps, for example, draw water from below the soil surface fueled solely by the operator’s feet. These types of pumps typically retail for US$20-100 dollars and aren’t dependent on fossil fuels. Another affordable innovation is the drip irrigation system. In contrast to the spray irrigation technique, which uses a sprinkler to water crops from above, a drip irrigation system distributes water directly to the roots at a much slower, continuous pace.  Delivering water directly to the roots not only prevents evaporation and run-off, but yields healthier plants because water consumption occurs most efficiently at the root. A drip kit covering 20 square meters retails for US$5.00 allowing it to be available to thousands of small scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

Irrigation in Action: Both of these water-saving innovations, and many others, were popularized and distributed through the efforts of the International Development Enterprise (IDE), an organization dedicated to improving economic opportunities in rural areas throughout Asia and Africa. In Bangladesh alone, 1.4 million treadle pumps have been sold since 1985. IDE’s success in Bangladesh inspired other organizations to re-adapt pump designs to suit conditions in Africa. Kickstart, taking into account Africa’s hilly terrain, designed a pressurized pump able to spray water uphill.  Since 1997, International Development Enterprise India (IDEI), IDE’s liaison office in India, has facilitated the sale of 295,000 drip irrigation kits. Rather than inventing a silver bullet to end water scarcity, IDE and others, like Kickstart, achieve success by scaling down already available technologies to conserve water one drip at a time.

4. Reduced and Zero-Tillage: While tilling soils can certainly improve harvests in the short-term, it has a pernicious effect on soil quality, specifically water and nutrient conservation.  Traditional tilling disrupts the soil structure by bringing the lower layers of soil to the surface. Once exposed, the moisture and nutrients evaporates or blows away.  Reduced or zero tillage practices, on the other hand, plant seeds in drilled holes or narrow ditches. This maintains the soils natural structure because it is not repeatedly overturned by a plow or hoe. The healthy soil, filled with natural moisture and nutrients, requires less water, fertilizer, and labor to sustain more agricultural growth.

Zero-Tillage in Action: Zero tillage has been successfully practiced all over the globe.  One highly successful example is soybean production in Argentina. The IFPRI’s Millions Fed: Proven Successes in Agricultural Development estimates that the use of zero-tillage in soybean cultivation led to a gain of US$4.7 billion since 1991. Easily affordable zero-tillage drills have also seen similar success in Northeastern India and eastern Africa.

5. System of Crop Intensification (SCI): A technique of planting fewer seeds in order to yield greater harvests, SCI involves transplanting young seedlings into a field with a wide amount of space between seeds. The wider spacing allows for a more mature root network to develop because there are fewer plants competing for the same soil. These stronger roots contribute to hardier plants, surpassing traditionally grown crops in size and resilience. Similar to drip-irrigation and zero-tillage, SCI recognizes the importance of strong root systems and high soil quality. Not only do fewer plants require less watering but the improved roots provide drought resistance which conserves water during the dry spells when farmers need to save every drop.

SCI in Action: The SCI technique has been successful in increasing wheat and rice harvests throughout Asia and Africa. In Mali, for example, wheat farmers increased yields by 15 to 20 percent. The advantages of SCI are even more pronounced during drought years when SCI yields can average more than 100 percent higher than conventional farms, as was the case in Bihar, India in 2010. A leading SCI researchers, Norman Uphoff, Professor of Government and International Agriculture at Cornell University and member of the Nourishing the Planet Advisory Groups, says farmers employing SCI “can get twice the yield with the same [seed] varieties, in the same soils, and in the same drought conditions.”

Grant Potter and Graham Salinger are research interns for the Nourishing the Planet project.

To read more about the innovations that conserve water , see: Innovation of the Week: “Re-Greening” the Sahel Through Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration, Working Where the Rain Doesn’t Fall, Getting “More Crop Per Drop” to Strengthen Global Food Security , Innovation of the Week: Researchers Find Farmers Applying Rice Innovations to Their Wheat Crops and Blue Revolution Key to Getting “More Crop per Drop” and Strengthening Food Security.

To purchase your own copy of State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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