Eye on Asia

Food and Water Security

Large Scale Precision Irrigation in Asia: Prospects and Problems
E. Robert Meaney Valmont Industries, Inc.

The current economic and agricultural boom in Asia, with its rising demand and consequent higher food prices, has been good for Asia’s farmers. The long-term perspective is for continued increased demand which will lead to continued profits in the agriculture sector. Meanwhile, Asia will add 1.5 billion people between now and 2050, and most of the additional food demand will be supplied by Asia. There is a feeling, supported by reports of low grain inventories, that we may no longer have to endure the boom and bust cycles of agriculture’s past. There is, in fact, a recognition that investments will have to be made to improve the productivity and sustainability of agriculture in Asia. There is also another expectation that, due to the limits of land and water in Asia, the Americas will have major export opportunities to Asia and even newly developed tracts in Africa can be brought into production to serve Asia. While this may be partly true, my belief is that Asian countries’ surest and most profitable option is to produce more food within Asia, because food produced within Asia does not need to rely on ocean transport and it is not subject to trade restrictions. Three years ago, Colin Chartres of IWMI stated this argument in Stockholm at the World Water Forum: “Asia’s food and feed demand is expected to double by 2050. Relying on trade to meet a large part of this demand will impose a huge and politically untenable burden on the economies of many developing countries. The best bet for Asia lies in revitalizing its vast irrigation system, which accounts for 70 percent of the world’s total irrigated land.” To produce the needed food and fiber, there will be many things to do on a number of fronts, all of which mean exciting opportunities for Asia’s farmers. But I agree with Mr. Chartres that the central issue for increased food production is improving irrigation in Asia. In the area of irrigation technology, modern technologies, such as drip and center pivot irrigation, have so far made only small inroads in this region which is home to several of the world’s largest flood irrigation projects and seven of the ten top irrigated countries. These flood projects, located on the Indus, the Ganga, the Brahmaputra, the Yellow, the Mekong and others, have long fed more than half of humanity. However, they need rehabilitation, and their dramatic environmental and social impacts need to be considered.

The future of irrigation in Asia will trend toward systems that will add water to crops only when water is needed. Often, these systems will supplement rainfed farming. The new systems will not require leveling and reorganizing vast tracts of land. They will be cheaper to install and maintain, and they will be scheduled directly by the farmer. The services required to install and support this new technology will be the foundation of new businesses in rural areas. The fact that innovation in irrigation technology has lagged somewhat in recent decades in Asia puts the Asian farmer in a good position to access the very latest technology now coming available. What are the innovations I am talking about? The main labels applied to these technologies are drip and center pivot. Both are excellent technologies offering good investment returns, depending on the circumstances, and both have been adopted in Asia only to a limited extent. In the case of center pivot technology, only 6,893 of the global total of 343,000 circles, about 2%, are in Asia. One reason for this very low adoption rate is the smaller size of the typical Asian farm. As for the rest of the world, about 17 million hectares of land in various crops is under center pivot irrigation. At Valmont, we have long struggled to find a way to give small farmers access to precision irrigation delivered by center pivots. Unfortunately, the realities of geometry make it hard to do. In searching for a solution, we are now working on an approach using the age old cooperative irrigation behavior found in flood irrigation schemes. This picture shows one of the early applications of the concept in Kenya.

The multiple user concept brings together a number of farmers with holdings of 3–15 hectares under a single center pivot. The pivot may be placed over existing farms or it may bring farmers together in a new place. In fact, this arrangement has existed at various times during the 65 year history of center pivot technology, but never before as an intentional strategy. To implement this concept, considerable training and technical support will be needed. Ideally, there will be a nearby commercial farming operation already using center pivot technology with personnel capable of supporting the multiple user pivots as shown in this picture.

I am sure many questions come to mind. How will small farmers be able to make this kind of investment? It may necessary for either a private entity or government to make an initial investment to demonstrate the concept. However, the incremental production provided by irrigation will be significant, so a payment arrangement based on water applied can fund the investment over time. Another question is how well the small farmers will handle the technology. In this case, the master farm or an irrigation dealership will provide any needed support. Because the path to implementing this concept is not simple, I believe that a number of test cases need to be conducted and evaluated. The Daugherty Institute at the University of Nebraska is considering a project to study a number of pilots in order to understand better the potential of this multiple user pivot concept. A test in Africa is planned for later this year, but

I believe several tests in different regions of Asia are needed as well. I believe that pursuit of this concept of a multiple user center pivot could bring the benefits of large scale precision irrigation to small farmers in Asia. Profitable small farms equipped with the best irrigation technology will bring the increased production Asia needs. These farms will also bring improved economic and social conditions directly to rural Asia.

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