The Real Challenge of Water Scarcity

As the world’s population grows at an exponential rate, the issue of water scarcity has increasingly negative impacts on the economics, sustainability and security of the global community. Despite improvements to water quality and distribution technology, there are still many regions in the world that do not have access to the water they need to survive.  In less developed regions, the issue is further compounded by the lack of modern infrastructure needed to supply water to areas in need, creating regions that are “water-rich” within miles of areas that are ”water-starved”.

Nevertheless, the real challenge of water scarcity proves to be an accessibility and productivity issue.  It is an issue that results in a non-equitable distribution of water resources among farmers and inevitably leads to socio-economic tensions.

The emergence of more efficient irrigation technologies such as micro irrigation has undoubtedly increased the productivity of water use in dramatic fashion.  Widely acknowledged as one of the few solutions that singularly addresses the challenges of water scarcity, food security & depleting arable land, the percentage of communities utilizing micro-irrigation technologies still remains remarkably low in under-developed and developing regions. 

The Broken Water Value Chain

The low rate of adoption can be blamed on a number of different factors, but they all start with water policies that separate control of water storage, conveyance and farm management under the authority of different government entities, each with differing goals, objectives and priorities.  The flawed segmentation of the water value chain prevents an integrated approach to water issues that is needed, and often keeps the farmer, last in the value chain, from realizing the benefits of improvements to water infrastructure earlier in the chain.

The problem is further exacerbated by the use of canal methods of water distribution. The inability of less developed regions to keep up with the high maintenance requirements of the antiquated delivery system results in substantial water losses due to leaks and evaporation.  This creates an unequitable delivery of water for farmers based on their proximity to the original water source.

Not surprisingly, the disjointed water value chain and the inefficient distribution methods have only served to widen the gap between water infrastructure improvements and the benefits experienced by farmers in less developed regions.

How do regions integrate the water value chain and shrink the benefits gap for farmers?

The answer might be in the recent success of an irrigation project developed by Netafim in the northern part of Karnataka, India, a drought-prone region whose population of subsistence farmers are dependent on the unpredictable and limited rainfall they receive to grow their crops.

Technology closes the Gap

The world’s largest drip irrigation project, the Ramthal Lift Irrigation Project is garnering the attention of leaders across the globe for a different reason. The project is a demonstration of using technology to fully integrate the water value chain, in turn, bridging the benefits gap and providing equitable distribution of water across 24,000 hectares that are home to more than 12,000 farmers in the region.

Community Micro Irrigation

The underpinning irrigation model, colloquially known as ‘community micro irrigation’, is a unique, innovative and integrated solution that is a nearly perfect example of leveraging modern technology to overcome limitations that have plagued the region’s farmers for centuries.

Officially defined as a solution that utilizes micro irrigation technology to seamlessly integrate ‘Water Conveyance’ with ‘On-Farm Water Productivity’, the project is essentially a system of pumps and filters that effectively transports water through a pressurized pipeline network, bypassing the inefficient canal systems.  The pipeline connects to a series of substations that act as water distribution centers that deliver water to farms in their local area at a uniform flow and rate, ensuring equitable distribution of water to all farmers in each defined irrigation zone.

The project also equipped each farm with an efficient drip irrigation system as well as fertigation technology that allows for the precise application of soluble fertilizer to the crop’s  root zone through the drip lines.  The effectiveness of the drip fertigation technology significantly reduces the quantity of fertilizer used when compared to traditional surface broadcast methods.

In order to regulate water use, local Water Use Associations (WUA) and cooperatives utilize wireless automation and control technology to control the availability of water to groups of farmers at scheduled weekly and/or monthly intervals. This ensures that all farmers have access to the same quantity of water regardless of their location.

Realizing that access to electricity in the region’s rural areas can be a limiting factor for the adoption of new technologies, the entire project utilizes a sole source of power to pump water at the source, and then relies on solar power to drive the wireless control and automation functions of each irrigation zone.

By optimizing the power consumption of the system in this manner, both capital expenditures and ongoing operating costs are minimized.

The end result is a system that empowers farmers with the ability to manage the efficient delivery of water and nutrients to their crops, and increase productivity of outputs.

Empowering Farmers and Nations

To no one’s surprise, the irrigation efficiency of the Community Micro Irrigation model is significantly higher than it is a conventional traditional irrigation system. The system of closed conduits and pressurized pipes is able to transport water over longer distances with nearly 100% efficiency compared to the canal method of water conveyance.

But, for the region’s farmers, the real benefits come from the increased productivity that has resulted from consistent access to water and the advanced drip irrigation system technology used on their farms.  No longer dependent on rainfall as the primary source of irrigation, the region’s farmers are able to grow crops year-round, resulting in increased productivity and far less uncertainty about the sustainability of their farming livelihoods.

Irrigation Efficiencies Surface Sprinkler Drip
Conveyance 40-50 90-100 90-100
Application 60-70 70-80 90-95
Moisture evaporation 30-40 30-40 20-25
Overall efficiency 30-35 50-60 80-90

The reduced loss of water during conveyance, combined with the reduced evaporation and application efficiency of drip irrigation results in a very high overall efficiency rating for the community results in drip irrigation providing a 80-90% efficiency rating for the Community Micro Irrigation system.

The ROI Equation

The project also includes provisions to establish market linkages that allow farmers to sell their farm-produce to fresh produce off-takers & processing companies, thus ensuring that farmers’ get the fair market price for their produce.

The Ramthal Lift Irrigation Project is the result of a public/private partnership (PPP), conceived on a Built-Operate-Transfer (BOT) basis with plans to hand-off operations and maintenance to the local government after five years of operation.  At that time, operation and maintenance will be funded by a tiered system of water usage charges paid by both farmers and cooperatives.  While the total cost tends to be higher than canal irrigation, the incremental benefits (water productivity and increased yields) over canal irrigation have shown to far outweigh the incremental cost.  And, the use of drip irrigation technology has doubled the number of farming hectares served (12,000 to 24,000 Ha) with the same volume of water.

In a typical community micro irrigation project, such as Ramthal Lift Irrigation, the benefit cost ratio ranges between 1.5 to 3.0 with a payback period between 3-4 years.

The Ramthal Lift Irrigation Scheme is the epitome of an integrated water solution that leaves no one behind. The project yields significant benefits to the entire agriculture value chain and will also substantially contribute to the growth and transformation of rural areas, and overall economic GDP of the region.

As the challenge of water scarcity is further exacerbated by a growing population and depleting water reserves, the Ramthal project is a viable solution to an increasingly complex problem.