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WATER USE EFFICIENCY – AN OVERVIEW AND

ECONOMIC PERSPECTIVE
EJ SCHMIDT
South African Sugar Association Experiment Station, P/Bag X02, Mount Edgecombe, 4300

Abstract
The current focus on water use efficiency is
driven by a number of issues in our legal,
economic and physical environment, including
new water legislation, increased competition for
scarce resources, greater focus on environment
impacts and escalating water and pumping costs.
Water use efficiency (WUE) means different
things to different people and to be able to
benchmark meaningfully a common undertanding of what is meant by the term “water use
efficiency” is required and comparable
measurements need to be made.
This paper provides an overview of the many
agronomic and engineering aspects that affect
water use efficiency and provides options for its
improvement. Examples illustrating how
maximizing water use efficiency will not always
maximize yield and profitability are also
provided.
Introduction
A number of external factors are focusing our
attention on water use efficiency. From a legal
perspective the National Water Act of 1998 has
acted as the main catalyst for all water use
sectors to re-evaluate how they use their water.
This is particularly so for agriculture which uses
in excess of 50% of the national consumption
and provides a typically low return on each unit
of water used. Evolving from the Water Act each
major water sector will be required to develop
water conservation and demand management
strategies to improve efficiencies. Irrigators will
also come under closer scrutiny through the
proposed water license system, administered at
local level by Water User Associations and
Catchment Management Agencies.
The National Water Act has also borne a new
Water Pricing Policy, which will result in
escalating water costs to recover all catchment
management
charges
and
infrastructure
operational and development costs. Trading of
water licenses, proposed in the Act, will result in

a migration from low efficiency to high
efficiency water use.
The shortage of water resources found in many
of our catchments is also requiring greater
efficiency in usage. Previous policies to
construct storage and infrastructure to address
shortages has been replaced by one of improving
efficiencies, with infrastructure development, at
full user cost, only as a last resort. A shortage of
water for agricultural use has been exacerbated
by increased recognition of the water needs for
basic human consumption, the environment as
well as our international neighbours.
The focus on water use efficiency will
nevertheless be gradual in some catchments and
will be felt soonest and most severely in other
catchments of acute competition and over
allocation.
Improving water use efficiency in the Sugar
Industry requires a better understanding of what
is meant by the term Water Use Efficiency
(WUE) and the factors that will influence it.
Furthermore it is important to recognize that
water is only one factor of production, as are
capital, labour, management and land.
Maximizing water use efficiency will not always
maximize yield and grower profitability.
Water Use Efficiency and the factors which
influence it
A number of useful review papers on water use
efficiency have been published in recent years
(Smith, 2000; Yang, 1997; Howell, 1997). A
framework for defining WUE is given in Figure
1, which is based largely on the above references
although terminology has been based on the
work of Smith (2000). Different terminology and
definitions are evident in even these review
papers.
Efficiency is generally associated with a
transformation of an input into an output.
Efficiency = Output / Input
The basis for ones often influence defining water
use efficiency background be it in agronomy or

Rainfall efficiency is dependant on relative losses through runoff or percolation below the root zone and will be influenced by rainfall intensity. namely from the main supply source to the farm edge (Conveyance Efficiency – Box 1) from the farm edge to the field edge (Farm Efficiency – Box 2) and from the field edge to the root zone (Field Efficiency – Box 3). dam and bulk canal and pipe distribution systems. The photosynthetic processes of the crop govern this. soil characteristics (in particular infiltration and depth/texture variations across the field). Equally important is the Rainfall Efficiency (Box 4) representing the amount of rainfall that is effectively supplied to the root zone. storage dams and pipelines. The engineer on the other hand would focus more on the efficiency of delivery of water from the source to the soil. which can be effectively supplied to the root zone. contour terraces. land slope and uniformity of grading as well as irrigation scheduling. One would wish to maximize the crop transpiration component. This is important in the context of both dryland sugarcane as well as irrigated sugarcane since the effective component of rainfall plus the effective component of irrigation will be available to the crop in the root zone. overhead. Also important is the wastage of water due to poor distribution timing. Clarity is required when talking about water use efficiency as to whether the effective or total component of rainfall has been included in the assessment and how effective rainfall has been determined. The widely referenced work of Thompson (1976) indicated production of 9. maintenance. wear and tear. The unit of water supply would typically be in millimeters (mm). To improve Conveyance Efficiency consideration needs to be given to water losses in the river. Agronomic focus Box 6 (Figure 1) illustrates the concept of Crop Water Use Efficiency defined as the fraction of water stored in the root zone that is transpired by the crop. Yang (1997) reviews the crop water productivity of sugarcane and shows a wide variation in the texts referenced. Box 8 (Figure 1) illustrates the concept of Crop Water Productivity defined as the conversion of crop transpiration (or evapotranspiration) to crop production or yield. representing the amount and timing of water applied relative to soil water storage. Thus an agronomist would focus more on water productivity by the crop and the utilization of water in the root zone for transpiration and conversion to a marketable product. soil and slope characteristics.engineering. Owing to difficulties in measuring just transpiration. To improve Farm Irrigation Efficiency consideration needs to be given to the design. trickle) the system operating condition (eg pressure). A portion of the soil moisture storage will be evaporated from the soil surface.6 ton cane for each 100mm of evapotranspiration. The Field Irrigation Efficiency (often referred to as application efficiency) is influenced by many factors including the irrigation and emitter system used (eg furrow. kilolitres (kl) or megalitres (Ml). Also included in this index could be the ratio of recoverable sugar to crop biomass. Greatest losses are likely due to seepage from unlined canals and dams and burst or leaking pipes. strip cropping. inflexible supply schedules and wasted flows bypassing abstraction works. surface trash retention and the presence of conservation practices (minimum tillage. The irrigation efficiency is affected by a number of levels of distribution and associated losses. Crop physiological and crop-soilclimate processes will influence this. These issues are expanded on below and in Figure 1. contour ploughing) and soil moisture at the start of the storm. The genetic factors of the crop will largely dictate Crop Water Productivity and . management and operation of farm distribution networks including canals. Engineering focus Box 5 (Figure 1) illustrates the concept of Irrigation Efficiency defined as the amount of water from the main water source. which can be attributed largely to different interpretations of the term “water use”. This can be done by reducing wetted surface area (subsurface drip irrigation) increasing shading (trash cover. Generally the literature talks of a linear relationship between yield and evapotranspiration. narrow row spacing and rapid canopy development) and minimizing weed cover. both transpiration and evaporation (evapotranspiration) are often used in determining crop water use efficiency. particularly in terms of seepage and evaporation losses.

8tc/Ml 7.3tc/Ml R3947/ha/yr R207/Ml Drip (4mm/day) Low Investment 719mm 431mm 60% 800mm 720mm 90% 1151mm 98tc/ha/yr 8. soil type. Profit attained will take into account the selling price as well as all fixed and variable costs attached to growing the crop and providing water to it. a dragline system putting down 25mm per week and a drip system putting down 4mm per day. both developed at SASEX. Results are given for two scenarios of capital investment for drip irrigation.4tc/Ml 12. It should be noted that in many texts the term Crop Water Productivity is referred to as the Water Use Efficiency. “water use efficiency” and economic return for two irrigation systems.3tc/Ml 59% 4. irrigation scheduling. crop production and economic return for two irrigation systems.2tc/Ml 7. Table 1 compares various indices of crop production. Rainfall (mm) Effective Rainfall (mm) Rainfall Efficiency (Box 4 – Figure 1) Gross Irrigation Nett Irrigation Irrigation Efficiency (Box 5 – Figure 1) Evapotranspiration Yield Crop Water Productivity (Box 8 – Figure 1) Water Use Efficiency (Box 7 – Figure 1) Water Productivity (Box 9 – Figure 1) Yield per Ml Gross Irrigation Yield per Ml Gross Irrigation + Eff rainfall Margin Economic Return (Box 10– Figure 1) Dragline (25mm/week) 719mm 287mm 40% 1185mm 830mm 70% 1117mm 93tc/ha/yr 8. The term Water Productivity is often referred in the literature as Irrigation Water Use Efficiency. An Economic Perspective on Water Use Efficiency Achieving a high Water Productivity (yield per unit of water supply) is often seen as the ultimate goal in irrigation planning and management and is used as a benchmark when comparing the performance of different irrigation systems or schedules. This represents a combination of the rainfall and irrigation efficiencies and the crop water use efficiency. which represents the profit attained from the sale of the crop per unit of water supplied.8tc/Ml 6.9tc/Ml R3123/ha/yr R205/Ml . The crops reaction to stress in differing growth periods will also be important.5tc/Ml 75% 6. Water Productivity (Box 9) can also be defined as the yield produced per unit of water supply. The results are based on the use of the Canesim crop model and the Irriecon irrigation economics model. Table 1: Comparing “water use efficiency”. It thus integrates all pathways of water supply.improvements could be sought through improved varieties and biotechnology. each with their own efficiencies with crop transpiration patterns. The selection of variety. The results are presented merely to illustrate trends and are based on many assumptions in terms of inputs to the models (eg. Investment in drip irrigation was an assumed R8000/ha. Combined Agronomic and Engineering Focus Combining the indices described above one can see from Box 7 (Figure 1) that overall Water Use Efficiency represents the fraction of the total water made available by both rainfall and irrigation that is used by the crop for transpiration (or evapotranspiration).9tc/Ml R4736/ha/yr R311/Ml Drip (4mm/day) Hi Investment 719mm 431mm 60% 800mm 720mm 90% 1151mm 98tc/ha/yr 8. A strategy to maximize Water Productivity will not always maximize Economic Return per unit of water as is illustrated on Table 1 below. combining all the efficiencies defined in Boxes 1 to 8 inclusive.2tc/Ml 7. timing of planting and harvest relative to periods of envisaged water stress. A more appropriate index to the farmer could be the Economic Return per unit water supply (Box 10 – Figure 1). namely high investment (R20000/ha) and low investment (R12000/ha).5tc/Ml 75% 6. irrigation system fixed and variable costs etc). water application strategies around growth stage and drying off programmes will be important in improving Crop Water productivity.4tc/Ml 12.

0tc/Ml 8. The cost of water and pumping costs will be an important factor to consider. primarily due to lower crop yields. • Decreasing the installation cost of the drip system will change the Margin and a low investment scenario results in a higher Margin and Economic return for drip compared with dragline. crop production and economic return for two strategies of water scheduling. The following trends can be noted from Table 1 when comparing dragline and low investment drip scenarios. Similar trends can be drawn when comparing strategies to save water using different irrigation schedules.3tc/Ml 60% 5.8tc/Ml 7. • The results are dependant on input assumptions (for example interest rate was assumed 17% in this example).8tc/Ml 6. but will give lower yields. While the Water Productivity will be higher with the water saving strategy the Margin will be lower. Rainfall (mm) Effective Rainfall (mm) Rainfall Efficiency (Box 4 – Figure 1) Gross Irrigation Nett Irrigation Irrigation Efficiency (Box 5 . Increasing the cost of water will clearly sway the economic return towards the lower water use drip systems. • Higher Rainfall Efficiencies were achieved with drip since a small proportion of the field was wetted and scheduling a small amount of water daily allowed a deficit for rainfall.Figure 1) Evapotranspiration Yield Crop Water Productivity (Box 8 – Figure 1) Water Use Efficiency (Box 7 – Figure 1) Water Productivity (Box 9 – Figure 1) Yield per Ml Gross Irrigation Yield per Ml Gross Irrigation + Eff rainfall Margin Rate of Economic Return (Box 10– Figure 1) Dragline (25mm/week) 719mm 287mm 40% 1185mm 830mm 70% 1117mm 93tc/ha/yr 8. the Margin (defined as income less fixed and variable operating costs) may not be higher under drip. Again changing assumptions will change the trends. • The Water Use Efficiency (Box 7) and Water Productivity (Box 9) are significantly higher for drip irrigation. From Table 2 it can be seen that a water saving irrigation strategy will result in a higher Rainfall Efficiency and less irrigation water being applied.5tc/Ml R3281/ha/yr R195/Ml . • The crop evapotranspiration and yield was marginally higher under drip with Crop Water Productivity (Box 8 Figure 1) virtually the same.3tc/Ml 59% 4.7tc/Ml 6. • Gross Irrigation pumped was lower with drip due to a higher Irrigation Efficiency and lower Nett Irrigation.The power of these models is in ones ability to test the impact of changes in inputs on results in order to develop a scenario that is appropriate to a particular farmers situation. • Despite the above efficiencies favouring drip. Table 2 below compares a dragline system putting on in one case 25mm per week (water intensive) and the other 30mm every 2 weeks (water saving). Based on a high capital investment scenario for drip the Margin is only R 3123/ha/yr compared with the overhead systems Margin of R3947/ha/yr. The Economic Return (Box 10) is however similar for the two systems owing to lower water usage under drip.3tc/Ml R3947/ha/yr R207/Ml Dragline (30mm/2weeks) 719mm 335mm 46% 964mm 675mm 70% 1010mm 84tc/ha/yr 8. • Yield per Ml (1000kl or 1000m3) gross irrigation or Yield per Ml gross irrigation plus effective rainfall are also higher under drip. Table 2: Comparing “water use efficiency”.

The Production of biomass by sugarcane. SA National Council for Irrigation and Drainage. Pricing structures will influence the extent to which high water use efficiency will be rewarded with improved profits. Smith M (2000). These factors should be the focus of the farmer or irrigator when seeking to improve efficiencies. Benchmarking water use efficiency requires a clearer definition of what is meant and what has to be measured. 6th International Micro-irrigation Congress. ISSCT Irrigation Workshop. At the end of the day a farmer will manage his operations to maximize production from a number of assets being managed. A range of factors. References Howell T (1997). A list of possible options to improve water use efficiency is given in Table 3. A significant factor driving the quest for higher water use efficiency is the opportunity to increase the area irrigated for each kilolitre per hectare saved. . South Africa. Land and capital are a farmers major assets and farming decisions will generally be taken to maximize gross margin per hectare and per Rand invested as opposed to per kilolitre of water used. Australia. The Water use Efficiency of a Sugarcane Crop – A Review. Cairns. Yang S (1997). Conclusion and Discussion This paper has presented a framework for interpreting the concept of water use efficiency in sugarcane production.For example an increase in the price of water or pumping costs will start to favour the water saving strategy when looking at margin and economic return. High fixed costs (capital invested in the irrigation system) will tend to focus attention on maximizing yield regardless of water consumed. which influence water use efficiency. Thus the area farmed can be maximized with the available water allocation. High charges associated with applying water to the field (pumping and water costs) will tend to focus attention on efficient water application. Thompson G (1976). have been presented. Proc S Afr Sug Technol Ass 52: 180187. if meaningful comparisons are to be made. Water Use Efficiency and Efficient Irrigation. Examples have been given in this paper to illustrate that good water use efficiencies do not necessarily provide high profits. Cape Town. Optimizing Crop Production and Crop water management Under Reduced Water Supply.

root control). Provision of training and extension (especially on farm irrigation management). blockage prevention (flushing. control of pest damage to pipes. Improved cultural practices (tillage depth. • • • • • • • • • • • • • • 4. Pipeline repair and replacement. 5. soil water content (soil moisture monitoring. stage of crop. 6.Table 3: Options for Improving Water Use Efficiency • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • 1. Crop Water Productivity Variety selection for drought tolerance and biotechnology. Management and Administration Formation of formal water user associations to improve management. soil water balance techniques). minimum tillage. repair and replacement programmed in place. Water charge structures. Water distribution management to improve reliability and timing. 2. Field Irrigation Correct system selection for conditions (appropriate technology). Surface Irrigation – Land leveling. Selection of best crop cycle giving cognizance to climate and water constraints. Salinity management. Crop Irrigation Management Scheduled water applications accounting for season. Maximize sucrose conversion. Improved on farm irrigation layout and structures. System design to take cognizance of soil. acid treatment. Avoid water shortage at critical growth stages. reduced wetted area) and wetting frequency. Adequate surface and subsurface drainage to remove excess water. . Water metering. Canal rehabilitation and lining. furrow shape and length. diameter and discharge with soil and crop. decisions and accountability. Best water placement (sub-surface. crop and climate conditions. field layouts. scarifying. chlorination. Study groups. Information and decision support to improve water distribution. Irrigation Distribution System Upgrading and modernization of supply system. Pressurized Sprinkler Systems – matching emitter pressure. stage of crop growth). contour planting. Field measurement. Maximize root volume. Row spacing and weed control (reduce evaporation losses). ripping if appropriate). flow management (surge/cut off/return flow systems). Drip Systems – as for sprinkler plus filtration. Optimal inputs to maximize production. Rainfall Management Increase effective rainfall (trashing. 3.

Figure 1: Framework for Defining “Water use Efficiency” (after Smith. 2000) Root zone store(mm) 1 Farm edge (mm) Water source (mm) 4 RAINFALL EFFICIENCY CONVEYANCE EFFICIENCY 2 Field edge (mm) Farm edge (mm) Rainfall (mm) 5 FARM EFFICIENCY Root zone store (mm) Water source (mm) IRRIGATION EFFICIENCY Transpiration (mm) Total water supply (mm) 7 WATER USE EFFICIENCY 9 3 Root zone store (mm) Field edge (mm) FIELD EFFICIENCY Yield (tc) Water supply (mm) WATER PRODUCTIVITY 6 Transpiration (mm) Root Zone Store (mm) CROP WATER EFFICIENCY Yield (tc) 8 Transpiration (mm) CROP WATER PRODUCTIVITY 10 Profit (R) Water supply (mm) ECONOMIC RETURN .