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Increasing the efficiency of irrigation systems

Increasing the efficiency of irrigation systems

Water scarcity in the Middle East is often compounded by the over-exploitation of already scarce water resources. One of the main culprits are inefficient irrigation systems which often waste precious water supplies. The performance of regional irrigation systems is also negatively impacted by conflict as evident in the cases of Iraq and Yemen where instability can disrupt the delivery of fresh water and damage crucial infrastructure.

The Water and Livelihoods Initiative (WLI) works with regional partners to improve the efficiency of irrigation systems, helping farmers to improve their water productivity and achieve ‘more crop per drop.’ It promotes: drip irrigation, a form of irrigation that allows water to drip slowly to the roots of crops; supplemental irrigation - involving the small addition of water when rainfall is unable to provide sufficient moisture for normal plant growth; and the use of marginal water as an alternative source of fresh water in times of extreme scarcity.   

Efforts to enhance water use efficiency are also complimented with recommendations for crop selection and planting strategies. For instance, the production of citrus fruits, vegetables, and staple crops like wheat and barley are targeted in Tunisia, Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt, as appropriate. 

Higher and more stable yields

Results achieved so far are encouraging and demonstrate that recommended irrigation strategies are preferable to conventional systems – bringing higher and more stable yields, lower water demand, increased incomes, and improved livelihoods.

In Yemen, for example, where researchers have studied the impact of supplemental irrigation on the productivity of sesame, farmers have experienced a 103-120 percent increase in yield productivity. Cost-benefit analyses show that the gross margin ranged from 1596 to 2570 USD per hectare (USD/ha) – significantly higher than the 586 to 1139 USD/ha achieved when supplemental irrigation was not applied.

In Egypt, WLI developed and disseminated Mechanized Raised Bed planting. The strategy reduced water demand by 30%, enhanced water use efficiency by 72%, reduced seed requirements by 50%, and increased yields by 25%. The technology has now been adopted by the Egyptian Government as part of its Food Security Strategy.

 Irrigating with marginal water

Efforts to mitigate the effects of marginal water on plant growth have also proved to be promising. In Iraq, where farmers often use brackish well water when canal water is not available, researchers are investigating whether the negative effects of this alternative resource can be mitigated through the application of fertilizers and hormones. The effects of K fertilizer were found to be beneficial: potato yields were 47 percent higher when 600 kilograms (kg) of K2SO4 per hectare (K2SO4/ha) was applied, and 58 percent higher when 400 kg was applied. Compost fertilizer was also effective: applying 10 tons per hectare (t/ha) and 3500 m3 of brackish irrigation water generated potato yields of 62 t/ha.

In Egypt, at a research station located to the west of the Nile Delta, WLI researchers are investigating whether water previously used for the production of tilapia fish can be enhanced with additional nutrients and utilized again for the irrigation of saline-tolerant crops such as sugar beet and barley. Aquaculture is big business in Egypt – the country is the second largest producer of farmed tilapia in the world – so success could help secure vital water resources for crop production, potentially benefiting thousands of smallholder farmers.

Capacity strengthening – investing in the future

Having established the efficacy of the recommended irrigation strategies, the WLI initiative is now out-scaling these innovations through promotion activities targeting the rural communities and farmers who stand to gain most from their application. Training courses and workshops on the use of sub-surface drip irrigation, and mitigating the negative effects of brackish water, help equip farmers with the skills they need to maintain productivity despite the worsening impacts of climate change.