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Too much water when you don’t need it. Too little water when you do. If there is one common hurdle all farmers must navigate, it is the long-term sustainability of managing their water resources.
Water is essential to growing food. According to the Water Footprint Network, a pound of lettuce needs a whopping 15 gallons of water to reach harvest. A pound of mangos requires 190 gallons of water. A pound of cheese needs 896 gallons. So, it’s no surprise that agriculture commands 70% of the world’s freshwater withdrawals. In some regions, like sub-Saharan Africa and California, that percentage is even higher.
Yet farmers aren’t the only ones that need water to survive. Humans need water for drinking water, sanitation, industry and for cooling. And while water is a finite planetary resource, the human population is not. Sixty percent more food will be needed by 2050 to meet the demands of a growing global population, thereby increasing agriculture’s water demands, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
For farmers, the path to water sustainability is in their water management. They need to use less water, waste less water and produce more yield for the water they do consume.
Table of Contents
What is Water Sustainability?
Water sustainability is meeting the water needs of today while ensuring future generations have the water they need as well. Sustainable water management means balancing ecological, social and economic needs for the best-use scenario to benefit all life, human and otherwise.
Sustainable water management is looking at all potential initiatives for conserving water resources, such as capturing and recycling water run-off, the adaptive re-use of wastewater, desalination, reducing water use and other ways all the stakeholders in water management can work to manage our precious water sources better.
Fresh, clean available water is critical to sustainable development and “for socio-economic development, energy and food production, healthy ecosystems and for human survival itself,” according to the United Nations (UN) report on global water sustainability. Water stewardship, ensuring high water quality and water systems that produce clean water equitably to populations, are key to the future of sustainable human populations and conserving our natural resources.
- 2.2 billion people lack access to safely managed drinking and potable water. (WHO/UNICEF 2019)
- Over half of the global population or 4.2 billion people lack safely managed sanitation services. (WHO/UNICEF 2019)
- 297,000 children under five die every year from diarrhoeal diseases due to poor sanitation, poor hygiene, or unsafe drinking water. (WHO/UNICEF 2019)
- 2 billion people live in countries experiencing high water stress. (UN 2019)
- 90% of natural disasters are weather-related, including floods and droughts. (UNISDR)
- 80% of wastewater flows back into the ecosystem without being treated or reused. (UNESCO, 2017)
- Around two-thirds of the world’s transboundary rivers do not have a cooperative management framework. (SIWI)Source – United Nations Water Report
Globally we have made significant progress in our water sustainability management.
Between 2015 and 2018 water-use efficiency increased by 9% worldwide across all sectors and by 8% in agriculture, according to a UN report. However, future water demand by all sectors “will require as much as 25 to 40% of water to be re-allocated from lower to higher productivity and employment activities, particularly in water-stressed regions,” according to the World Bank.
What Does Sustainable Water Management Look Like in Agriculture
Sustainable water management for farmers means managing water they have access to for its best and highest use but also considering their ecosystem and future water needs. Food production may be critical to human life and water critical to growing food, but farmers still have to balance their water needs with the other demands on water resources.
For farmers in areas experiencing drought and severe water shortages, proactive sustainable water management can be the difference to surviving as a farming business.
Oftentimes, farmers are part of a water utility and are dependent upon the water allocated to them with availability based upon a region’s overall water usage and water shortages. For instance, because of a severe, ongoing drought, many California farmers received a much smaller freshwater water allotment (and some not at all) from their regional water authorities in the 2022 growing season than typical.
With climate change bringing more extreme weather events leading to longer, more severe droughts and sudden, more intense flooding, farmers need to use every tool at hand to conserve what water they do use and save and take advantage of water when they do have it. In the U.S., some regions, like the U.S. Southwest, are predicted to experience more frequent, intense and longer-lasting droughts because of climate change.
What Sustainable Water Solutions are Used in Agriculture?
Farmers are dependent upon water to grow their cost-effective crops successfully. With the demands on water increasing, between population growth and climate change, agriculture has developed many sustainable water solutions to better understand the water cycle and optimize and reduce their water use.
12 Ways Farmers are Conserving Water
By precisely applying inputs and concentrating on improving yields, farmers increase their ability to grow more using fewer resources, including water.
· Drip and Micro-Sprinkler Irrigation Systems
Drip and micro-sprinkler irrigation systems can increase a farmer’s water efficiency use by as much as 70% over less-efficient irrigation methods.
· Irrigation Scheduling
Irrigating at the proper time in a crop’s lifecycle and during the right conditions – like in the evening when winds are calm, can help reduce evaporation rates and ultimately the amount of water a crop needs in irrigated farming systems.
· Drought-Tolerant Crops
Selecting drought-tolerant crops or planting crop genetics bred for drought resistance can help farmers reduce their water use or harvest a crop despite limited water availability.
· Capturing and Recycling Water
Capturing and recycling irrigation, in the case of flood irrigation systems, or their own farm wastewater, like on dairy farms, is one strategy many farmers have taken to more effectively manage their water resources.
· Cover Crops and Soil Health
Improving soil health through cover cropping can help increase the soil’s ability to absorb and retain water during wet periods or even irrigation events, so moisture is more available later.
· Rotational Grazing
Rotational grazing of livestock through pastures or even following harvest crops can improve soil tilth, encourage plants to grow deeper, more resilient root systems and ultimately retain and conserve water in the soil for plant health.
· Conservation Tillage
Conservation tillage practices like maintaining green watersheds in fields, or no-till cropping, help to reduce water runoff during rain events, preserving moisture in the soil for later crops.
· Mulch and Compost
Mulch and compost help improve soil health for better water retention and also reduce evaporation at the soil surface.
· Moisture Probes and Aerial Imaging
Moisture probes and aerial imaging, through the use of drones, airplanes and satellites, help farmers identify leaks in irrigation systems, as well as wetter versus drier areas of their fields, to better manage the efficiency of their irrigation system.
· Variable Rate Irrigation
Variable-rate irrigation installed on center pivot irrigation systems or even drip irrigation systems allows farmers to precisely tailor their irrigation needs to exactly when and where a crop needs water.
· Wastewater Reuse
Many farmers work with local municipal treatment plants using wastewater for irrigation purposes, preventing potential watershed pollution while providing farmers with an additional water resource that recharges groundwater aquifer systems.
Sustainable Agriculture and Water Management
No matter how much – or how little – water your farm has access to, and what sustainable water techniques you employ, the key to water conservation is precision water resources management using farm management software.
AGRIVI farm management software helps farmers run, monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of their irrigation system.
AGRIVI lets growers record and track any irrigation activity. For instance, a farmer can record the exact amount of water used when it was used, its source, and the labor costs for running the system and then use that information to calculate the irrigation ROI for that specific crop based on harvest returns.
Farmers can also use AGRIVI to manage and automate water distribution across their farm fields using our IoT hardware. This helps farmers make efficient decisions, especially when water resources are limited while saving time and labor.