How much water does rice use?

by Bas Bouman

Rice Today examines this often-asked (and often poorly answered) question


any people ask the global water cycle and will eventually evapotranspiration, outflows of question, “How much return to the earth as rain or snow. water from a field occur through water does it take to The rice crop comprises seepage and percolation: sideward produce 1 kg of rice?” the plants and underlying soil. and downward water flows through The answer to this question lies in Besides transpiration from the the soil and bunds out of the field. the definition of “water use” and of plants, water leaves the crop For an individual farmer, these are “rice.” We can identify three types of from the soil underneath through real losses as well, and she considers water “use”—through transpiration, evaporation. Like transpiration, the total combined outflows by evaporation, and a combination evaporated water is “lost” and evapotranspiration, seepage, and of seepage and percolation—at, cannot be used again by that same percolation as water use by her rice respectively, three scales of rice—the crop in the same growth cycle. This field (see figure). The farmer needs plant, the crop, and the field. combined water use by a rice crop to ensure sufficient irrigation (to The rice plant “uses” water is called “evapotranspiration.” complement rainwater if rainfall through the process of transpiration, In rice fields, water is often is insufficient) to match all these which cools the plant and drives ponded to ensure there is plenty outflows. At a larger spatial scale, the upward sap flow—which carries for the crop to take up. Besides however, seepage and percolation essential nutrients—from I R T roots to leaves. This is a “real” E water use, since once the plant has taken up water O and released it to the atmosphere O through Bund transpiration, S Floodwater that amount S of water is no Puddled longer available soil Plow layer for reuse by that Subsurface soil C P same plant in Groundwater the same growth cycle. Transpired WATER BALANCE of a puddled rice field: C = capillary rise; E = evaporation; I = irrigation; O = over-bund flow; P = percolation; R = rainfall; S = seepage; T = transpiration. water enters the
Rice Today January-March 2009

Jose Raymond panalIgan

it must be remembered.2 With a global rough rice production of around 600 million tons. Field Crops Research. Bouman is a senior water scientist and head of the Crop and Environmental Sciences Division at IRRI. it takes an average of 1.500 liters account for all the outflows of evapotranspiration. about 2. No. 2004 1. as climate-change-induced shifts in rainfall patterns combine with the diversion of irrigation water for urban and industrial uses. cotton and maize. By comparison with total global water use. from where other farmers may reuse the water to irrigate other fields. This is roughly the same as the world-average water use of wheat.200 780 180 Total Food Industry domestic Rice plant water use (by transpiration) Pot experiments and greenhouse studies carried out at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) have shown that rice plants growing under a range of water applications transpired 500–1. Producing the world’s rice accounts for 12–13% of the amount of evapotranspired water used to produce all of the world’s food (food crops and grass and fodder for livestock). 247 p. However.432 liters of evapotranspired water to produce 1 kg of rough rice. Nevertheless. These 2. water inputs to rice fields are 2–3 times those of other major cereals. (In press. 20044 7. No. 4) and more efficient irrigation regimes such as alternate wetting and drying (see The big squeeze on pages 26-31 of Rice Today Vol. Siopongco JDLC. seepage.450 6. Although rice’s water productivity in terms of evapotranspiration is similar to that of comparable cereals such as wheat. Delft (Netherlands): UNESCO-IHE. 2). Table 3 puts the world rice water use by evapotranspiration into perspective. Boling AA. 2004. 20045 625 909 1. Table 2 summarizes experimental data from wellmanaged lowland field experiments with rice. 2004. weather. Tuong TP.000 ranging from around 4 Chapagain and Hoekstra. see High and dry on pages 28-33 of Rice Today Vol.) Mom R. 16. World-average water use by evapotranspiration of major experimental data at nonrice grain crops (liters of water per kg of grain). 1 2 3 4 5 Haefele SM. fertilization regime used.500 liters of water need to be supplied (by rainfall and/or irrigation) to a rice field to produce 1 kg of rough rice.300 900 – 800 liters to more than 5. the individual field level across Asia. This Table 2. This is in contrast to the water losses by evapotranspiration. Master thesis. source chapagain and Hoekstra. Rice Today January-March 2009 29 . This average number is derived from a large number of Table 1. 2007. 2004. The variability in water use by evapotranspiration by rice crops is large. rice. Water footprint of nations. Chapagain AK. 2004 1.390 716 344 Falkenmark and Rockström. At the field level. Earthscan. Enschede. Agric.000 liters. 7. As agricultural water scarcity increases. A high spatial resolution analysis of the water footprint of global rice consumption. University of Twente. around onequarter to one-third of the world’s developed freshwater resources are used to irrigate rice (which. and percolation. Liters of evapotranspired water needed to produce 1 kg of variability is caused rough rice.667 planted. 20043 8.000 liters of water to produce 1 kg of rough (unmilled) rice. is the staple food for almost half the world’s population). Bastiaansen WGM. by crop management source minimum medium maximum (such as variety Zwart and Bastiaansen. Rice production must be viewed in the light of the emerging water crisis. Table 3. and soil properties. Total global water use (cubic kilometers of water per year). Transpiration efficiency of rice (Oryza sativa L.). rice’s water-use efficiency at the level of irrigation systems (which comprise many fields) may be higher than that at the field level. Water Management 69:115-133. Balancing water for humans and nature: the new approach in ecohydrology. 76 p Zwart SJ. Rice crop water use (by evapotranspiration) The estimated water use by evapotranspiration of all rice fields in the world is some 859 cubic kilometers per year. Falkenmark M. Rockström J.160 7. Review of measured crop water productivity values for irrigated wheat. and pest and disease controls adopted). which cannot be recaptured. 3 Falkenmark and Rockström. Hoekstra AY. Source Wheat Maize Barley Variability is large.480 1. Value of water research report series No. London.150 1.flows from one field enter the groundwater or creeks and drains. because these outflows can often be captured and reused downstream. Netherlands. rice requires more water at the field level than other grain crops because of high outflows—in the forms of seepage and percolation—from the field. but higher than that of maize and barley (see Table 1). Rice field water use (to account for evapotranspiration plus seepage and percolation) On average. there is a growing need for watersaving technologies such as aerobic rice (varieties that grow well in unflooded fields. Dr. Bouman BAM. 6. UK.1 This is at the high end of comparable cereals such as wheat and barley. 2008.