Making do with less water: the new reality of farming

As the impact of an extended period of drought across Southern Africa continues, the concern is setting in among commercial and small-scale farmers that a water-constrained environment may no longer be a short-term challenge.

Making do with less water: the new reality of farming

As the impact of an extended period of drought across Southern Africa continues, the concern is setting in among commercial and small-scale farmers that a water-constrained environment may no longer be a short-term challenge. It could, in fact, become the new normal.

While this realisation is also dawning on agriculture stakeholders across the world, it is a reality that is particularly difficult for South African farmers to deal with.

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This is because they already face having to operate in an environment of lower per capita water supply than that of most other countries, not to mention an extremely low ratio of annual rainfall to annual water run-off. In fact, research by the Worldwide Fund for Nature – South Africa (WWF-SA) has shown that only about 9% of rainfall actually makes it into our rivers.

Since irrigated agriculture already accounts for more than 60% of South Africa’s total water usage, it is highly unlikely that farming will enjoy a higher allocation of this scarce resource in the near future. In fact, the opposite is probably true. National government has declared its intention to significantly expand irrigation-based crop farming land use in the country, but no increased allocation in water rights has been earmarked for this purpose.

The onus now falls on the agricultural sector, and its commercial farmers in particular, to shift the farming mindset from one of water usage to water stewardship, and proactively embrace more water-friendly technologies, practices and attitudes.

Radical change of approach
Developing a stewardship mindset is arguably the most important paradigm shift that has to take place in order for agriculture in South Africa to achieve the levels of sustainability required. In previous eras, it was acceptable for farmers to focus more on profitability and yield potential than on how thirsty their crops were.

Today, the picture is different, and profit margins have to be carefully balanced with crop water demand considerations. This is not to say that farmers with established water-intensive crops such as tree nut or citrus orchards need to pull up their orchards and replace them with water-friendly alternatives.

But where new farms or crops are established, indigenous or water-wise crops should now take precedence over high-profit, water-intensive options.

There is also much that farmers with existing ‘thirsty’ crops can do to lessen their impact and dependence on water. In many cases, achieving this will require a willingness to challenge practices passed down for generations.

It may also involve short-term financial investment in water-saving technology, but this will almost certainly deliver long-term sustainability returns.

One example is investing the time, effort and capital into converting a farming operation from spray to drip irrigation, which uses significantly less water as it feeds it directly to the roots rather than losing a vast proportion to wind dispersal.

Another is the proven water and soil preservation benefits of shifting from the historically accepted practice of seasonal tilling of farmland to a low-till or no-till farming approach.

Advancements in technology also mean that farmers today have access to drought-resistant seed strains and quicker-growing cultivars. Investing in these effectively speeds up the rate at which crops reach maturity, lessening the amount of time they spend in their highly water-dependent young state and reducing the chances of water stress due to delayed rain.

Information is accessible
Of course, sustainable farming in a water-constrained environment also requires that farmers have access to as much data on rainfall, wind, heat, and other weather factors as possible. These insights are invaluable when deciding what, when and where to plant.

Unfortunately, while this information exists for much of South Africa, there are gaps in countries to the north. As a result, farmers there should take the initiative to invest in small-scale weather stations to gather point-specific data. While this technology can be expensive, the costs could be shared by a group of farmers in the same location.

The bottom line is that, with some effort and possibly investment, farmers today can access excellent information and technology; there is little excuse to practise methods that involve excessive water usage or wastage.

And the simple truth is that only those farmers who are willing to invest the time and effort into learning how best to manage their water requirements, will be the ones who are still in business, and producing, a decade from now.

Water-wise emerging farmers
While it is relatively easy for large-scale commercial farms to invest in water-management technology and processes, the future of SA agriculture rests on the long-term success of its growing contingent of emerging farmers. Introducing these mitigating strategies would be beneficial to such small-scale farmers as well.

However, enabling them to benefit from the information, data and new technologies that are available, and adopt climate-resilient farming strategies to mitigate the effects of climate change, will take a concerted effort from the entire agriculture industry.

In this regard, all established stakeholders in the industry have a responsibility to work together to educate, enable and support this crucial emerging sector and instil an attitude of water stewardship and effective water management at the outset of their commercial farming undertakings.

Ultimately, the key to the large-scale adoption of water-efficient practices is the understanding by farmers – established and emerging – that managing water more effectively is not simply a green consideration; it has become a prerequisite for ensuring long-term economic viability.

For SA farmers, the bottom line is that a business-as-usual approach to water usage will no longer suffice. The new, water-constrained ‘normal’ demands a genuine commitment to water efficiency – even if this means drastically changing the way they farm.

For more information, email Zhann Meyer at [email protected].

The views expressed in our weekly opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Farmer’s Weekly.