WORKING across semi-arid farming regions across the globe, anyone employed by the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dryland Areas (ICARDA) is going to know the value of a drop of water – but none more so than agricultural hydrologist Vinay Nangia.
Dr Nangia has been working on a project on supplementary irrigation across a variety of farming systems.
The project is being carried out in Jordan on rangelands, in Egypt in irrigated areas and in Morocco on mixed farming systems with limited irrigation.
They are disparate farming environments, with one common theme – the need to make the most of water.
Dr Nangia said this involved finding the best cash crops dollar for dollar.
«It’s about getting the best financial returns for the water you put out, it may be that you are better off using the assets you have, in Morocco’s case the sunshine and availability of groundwater, to grow something else.
«You look at Sri Lanka, it has a good climate for food production, but it has made the decision to focus on high value crops such as tea and import staples such as rice and that might be something we look at here in Morocco.»
Dr Nangia said one exciting development has come through research by the US-based Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
With energy costs a key concern for small scale farmers with limited cash flow, the chance to lower the cost of fitting a pump and then pumping water is welcome.
MIT has come up with a nozzle suitable for fitting on drip irrigation systems that allows water to be pumped under extremely low pressure ranges.
«We have successfully applied the right rates of water on citrus trees with pressure rates as low as 0.15 of a bar (2.1 psi).»
«With 70-75pc of the cost of the irrigation projects in the area in the pumps it allows growers to work a pump half the size to achieve the same outcome.»
The technology focuses on a membrane over the outlet.
«It was formerly expensive to do, now there is a way to produce the fittings cheaply.»
Dr Nangia said drip irrigation was cutting water costs in North Africa.
«People can get the right amount out at the right time, it is replacing more wasteful forms of irrigation, we have gone from flood irrigation to furrow to now drip, especially in the horticulture industries.»
Morocco is already exploiting its position just to the south of Europe to send over horticulture products from its sunny southern region, in places such as Agadir, where there are good soils and reasonable underground water supplies.
It can hit the European market several weeks earlier than other producers can, due to the extra sun.
While the technology has been created with farmers in the developing world in mind, Dr Nangia said there was no reason the low pressure concept could not help Australia farmers lower their power bills, especially in instances where relatively low amounts of water were required by the crop.
* Gregor Heard travelled to Morocco with assistance from the Crawford Fund and with financial support from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Council on Australia Arab Relations.