Water Industry News

How Can Agricultural Water Management Improve To Mitigate Drought?

As we’re all no doubt painfully aware now, climate change is here… and it’s here to stay, with the visible effects of the crisis being seen all around the world in line with rising temperatures, changing rainfall patterns and rising sea levels.


While prevention may have been better than cure at one point, those days are long gone and it’s time to consider how best we can both adapt to the changing world and mitigate the effects, stopping further temperature hikes in the future.


Last year, global average temperatures briefly surpassed pre-industrialisation levels by over two degrees C for the very first time, above the critical threshold that could have irreversible catastrophic impacts on the natural environment and ecosystems.


While the crossing of this threshold was only temporary, it’s symptomatic of the fact that the planet is now steadily getting hotter, moving towards a long-term future where the impacts of climate change will either be difficult or impossible to resolve, CNN reported at the time.


As the world heats up, the risk of extreme weather events like heatwaves, droughts, floods and fires all increase. This disruption of the natural world is throwing the climate system as a whole out of balance and, because it is so finely tuned, even the smallest of changes can have significant, long-lasting consequences.


Biodiversity, natural ecosystems and human health are all put at risk because of climate change, with far-reaching impacts including dwindling water supplies, growing conflict between nations, flooding, changes in seasonality, heat stress, increased fire risk, marine ecosystem damage, infrastructure damage… and food insecurity.


How will climate change affect food security?


A recent report from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) revealed that the growing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events like droughts, floods and megafires – all driven by climate change – are now having a devastating impact on food security and jobs all over the world.


It was found that the annual occurrence of disasters such as these is now over three times that seen during the 70s and 80s, with agriculture absorbing 63 per cent of the disaster-related impact, with the least developed countries, as well as low and middle-income nations, the most affected of them all.


Between 2008 and 2018, natural disaster impacts cost developing country economies more than $108 billion thanks to damaged or lost crops and livestock production. Smallholder and subsistence farmers, fishers and pastoralists in particular often find this damage to be especially detrimental.


Some of the biggest threats for the agricultural sector were identified in the report as being crop and livestock pests, infestations and diseases, with biological disasters responsible for nine per cent of crop and livestock production loss between 2008 and 2018.


However, the single biggest culprit behind production loss was found to be drought, with more than 34 per cent of losses in developing, low and middle-income countries traced back to drought conditions. This cost the sector $37 billion overall, with agriculture sustaining 82 per cent of all drought impact, in comparison to 18 per cent for all other industries.


Because irrigated agriculture is the biggest user of water around the world, responsible for 70 per cent of all water use globally, the industry is unfortunately actively contributing to the problem.


Couple this with the fact that the sector is also one of the biggest water polluters in many regions as a result of waste runoff and pesticide use and it becomes clear just how essential it is for agriculture to improve its water management in order to deliver sustainable global food production and shore up food security.


How can agriculture improve its water management practices?


Improving water management will have a direct impact on food security, crop yield and ecological viability… and there are many different strategies that can be employed to deliver on this front.


Precision irrigation, for example, can help water crops more efficiently, while rainwater harvesting has been found to be a very effective solution, with water stored to be used later during periods of drought. Crop rotation, native crop planting and prioritising drought-tolerant species can also help build resilience into the sector.


And treated wastewater can also be used for irrigation, helping to reduce reliance on freshwater supplies and decreasing pollution from outflow at the same time.


For farmers in the UK, the government has just launched a fund to help them manage their water resources more effectively, with £1.6 million soon to be available to help those in the industry investigate different approaches, such as multifarm reservoirs, water trading and treated wastewater recycling schemes.


Philip Duffy, chief executive of the Environment Agency, said: “Climate change, increased demand, and the need to protect the environment mean that up to five billion extra litres of water will be needed in England every day by 2050.


“By working together, farmers can make a huge positive impact in improving our use of water resources, making sure they have water to use in times of drought and safeguarding our food security.”


Some 20 studies will be supported by the fund, which will also help support investigations into water demand and availability in the most water-stressed agricultural regions over the next 25 years.


Applications for the fund opened on April 22nd and will close on June 16th, open to groups of two or more neighbouring farms that are eligible to apply.