Why the World Needs Sustainable Irrigation


SEATTLE — The Indus River civilizations, Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt are often considered the precursors to modern civilization. Languages, trade, math and settlements all began in these areas, and it was all made possible by rivers. The Indus, Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile rivers helped to give birth to the world as we know it today. However, trade was not the first reason that people began to settle around these rivers; it was the easy access to water.

As was well documented in Ancient Egypt, annual flooding allowed communities to begin to farm. Over time, as these communities grew, so did their need for food. As the demand for food rose, farmers needed a way to use the waters of the Nile more efficiently. Sluices, reservoirs, canals and the use of silt, techniques still in use today, were perfected to the best of their ability. Ancient and modern Egyptians have reaped the social, economic, health and stability benefits of sustainable irrigation.

Sustainable Irrigation Can Relieve Water-Stressed Countries

The United Nations estimates that by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed countries. People as a whole do not manage their water resources efficiently. Although the water cycle continually replenishes the water table, water is currently being used faster than it can be replenished and some areas are tapping into water resources that can take centuries to recover their losses. Often due to technological and economic differences, inefficient use of water in farming affects less developed nations more.

According to the U.N., roughly 70 percent of freshwater around the world is used for agriculture. The U.N. also estimates that this number could climb to 90 percent in developing countries and the overall rate could rise by 20 percent by 2030. Rainwater is used by the majority of the world to water crops; this is less than half as effective as optimal irrigation. To improve water usage and see the benefits of sustainable irrigation, the world must act together through global investment, local governance and ingenuity.

Afghanistan a Success Story in Irrigation Efficiency

Although the statistics seem bleak, there are stories of improvement from around the world. The World Bank and the government of Afghanistan are working together to improve farming around the country. Like many countries around the world and people throughout time, the farmers of Afghanistan use manmade trenches and canals to move water for irrigation. Due to a lack of funding and decades of war, many of Afghanistan’s rural irrigation systems are not up to optimal spec.

In Herat Province, Afghanistan, a reconstructed canal has eased the labor burden of irrigation and increased the efficiency of the village’s water use for irrigation. Now, a single man cleans and maintains the canal on a daily basis, rather than the 70 that were previously needed. Cement gates and barriers direct water, whereas before sandbags and teams of people were needed to direct the water into the fields. This single canal cost less than $100,000 to rebuild and helps 330 families lead better lives.

Countries Continue to Disagree Over Control of Water Sources

The partnership between the World Bank and the government of Afghanistan shows that a global effort is needed to see the benefits of sustainable irrigation. On the state-to-state level, things can become more complicated. Whether looking at the water relations between Turkey, Iraq and Kuwait or at the Nile and the relationship between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, trusting relationships must be fostered to maintain water security in regions such as these.

Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan all rely on the Nile for power and irrigation. Ethiopia is building a hydroelectric dam on the Nile River, which could lead to a possible “water war”, as it has been called by multiple news outlets and international journals. The possibility of conflict will hopefully be avoided due to the national interest.

Global Innovations in Sustainable Irrigation

Technology can be applied to improve irrigation and the benefits of sustainable irrigation. Where Egypt uses the Nile and the United States relies on groundwater and massive sprinkler systems, Israel has pioneered drip irrigation technology. Israel does not have the benefit of readily available freshwater, so it has adapted. Traditionally, fields are flooded via groundwater or by simulated rain, but drip irrigation sends small calculated amounts of water directly onto the roots of plants.

The system can be expensive both in installation and maintenance, but responsible adoption around the world can reduce water waste and increase the benefits of sustainable irrigation. With this system and other measures, Israel has been able to continue to farm and increases its economic output in the agriculture sector. This may not be a viable system for every country, but this ingenuity is a goal that many should strive to achieve.

Growing economies, elevating social comfort and sustaining stable governments are all benefits of sustainable irrigation. These not only benefit the locality or country but can benefit neighboring countries and the global community. Projects such as those in Afghanistan and Israel must be pushed to the front of the global conversation. This seems like a momentous task, but everyone can contribute to this goal.

– Nick DeMarco

Photo: Flickr


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