Knowing is Saving: a Water Impact Calculator to Help Indian Farmers Conserve Water

By Jerome Bossuet

Jerome Bossuet is a Marketing Communication and Multi-media Specialist with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). Bossuet is a specialist in international agriculture development and development communications with 15 years experience in Europe, Asia, and Africa. He is interested in agricultural innovations to help smallholder farmers in the South. Click here to read more articles in his blog “Innovation contre la faim (Innovation against hunger).

The world is in crisis-a food crisis with prices rising, one out of seven people go to bed hungry, and our water resources continue to deplete. This year’s World Water Day (22 March 2012) theme,  “Water and Food Security”,  debates both these issues and highlights the importance of agriculture and food in the water debate, given agriculture is the main water user.

Photo credit: ICRISAT

Every 3 years since 1997, the World Water Forum has been bringing together water experts and policymakers, private sector and civil society actors, and farmer organisations, interested in the future of our precious and limited freshwater resources. Until now the forum has raised the key problems of water scarcity, water pollution, and water usage conflicts around the world.

But this year, the forum organisers in Marseille claim that it is time for action-it is time to find solutions, to fight this looming water crisis.

One important challenge in the coming years is to invent new ways of farming, able to produce more with less water, as explained in my previous post on green water.

But how do we make this happen rapidly, in particular for the resource-poor farmers in the Global South?

Luckily, adapted technology and good farming practices already exist. The dissemination of appropriate and affordable irrigation solutions, adapted to smallholder farmers, such as International Development Enterprises India’s low-cost drip systems or the African Market Garden developed by ICRISAT and AVRDC-the World Vegetable Centre in West Africa, can save water as well as increase crop intensity and yields in these farms.

Another important strategy to save water is to inform and train farmers so they have a better knowledge of the water needs of their crops.

Alliance between agrobusinesses, researchers and farmers for a water-saving agriculture

An innovative public-private partnership recently started in India supports knowledge-sharing about good water practices at the farm level. A consortium of well-known agrobusiness corporate companies, such as Danone and Unilever, has formed the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) Platform to encourage sustainable agricultural practices, including water-efficient irrigation, which will improve the quality and quantity of water resources at the watershed level.

This new pilot project in the Indian states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Andhra Pradesh, led by the Water and Agriculture Working Group at SAI and run by ICRISAT seeks to scale up the adoption of water-saving irrigation practices via the development of a simple, farmer-friendly irrigation decision-making tool.

Farmers in developing countries usually schedule their  irrigation according to a calendar, without taking into account the soil characteristics of their plots of land, the local climate and temperature variations, and specific water needs of each crop. They also tend to water more than necessary, preferring  to see a very wet soil, thinking that the more water the plant has, the better. Too much water, however, is also not good for the plant and propagates pests and diseases.

The project is developing a Simple Water Impact Calculator (WIC) for farmers, which estimates the impact of their current practices on water conservation, and explores ways to use water more efficiently by running the water balance model. WIC is a generic decision support tool that can be useful for irrigation scheduling for any crop as well as to decide the timing and quantity of water as supplemental irrigation during a drought situation while growing rain-fed crops.

WIC compiles key information such as soil and climate maps, water needs per crop according to growth stage, and prevalent weather conditions. The farmer only needs to provide some simple information (sowing date and type of crops, name of village/district and, if possible, a description of the soil) and the calculator helps to decide when and how much water he should apply on the plots.

This tool is particularly adapted for marginal farmers in the semi-arid tropics where water availability is increasingly unpredictable.

A big saving in water

A first experimental phase on several sites/farms has demonstrated a decrease in water use by 30 to 40 percent, regardless of the irrigation methods used by farmers (flood, furrow, or drip irrigation) without affecting crop yields. Farmers also noticed a decrease in fertilizer and plant treatment needs; which is explained by less run-off.

Finally, farmers using this tool began to change their behavior by realizing that “it is better for the plant to suffer a little, than to have the roots drowned in a soaked soil” as Dr Suhas Wani, ICRISAT lead scientist coordinating the WIC project, explains. Scaling-up the WIC’s use to hundreds of farmers will shed more light on its impact and potential for mass application. Mobile technology will be used to collect the data needed from farmers and communicate the WIC results for a more efficient use of scarce water.

To purchase 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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