Irrigation systems have been under pressure to produce more with lower supplies of water. Various innovative practices can gain an economic advantage while also reducing environmental burdens such as water abstraction, energy use, pollutants, etc. (Faurès and Svendsen, 2007). Farmers can better use technological systems already installed, adopt extra technologies, enhance their skills in soil and water management, tailor cropping patterns to lower water demand and usage, reduce agrochemical inputs, etc. Water-efficient practices potentially enhance the economic viability and environmental sustainability of irrigated agriculture, without necessarily reducing water usage. To inform such practices, experts have developed various models of water efficiency, yet these are little used by farmers.
Through two case studies in the EU context, this paper will address the following questions:
When an IRR
igation area invests in innovative technology, how can its operation help
farmers to achieve the full potential benefits together, e.g. an economic advantage, greater water-use efficiency, and lower resource burdens?
Why are innovative technologies often applied in ways which miss the full potential benefits?
What tensions arise among various objectives and potential benefits?
How can these difficulties be addressed?
The paper first surveys analytical perspectives on irrigation efficiency – especially the means, incentives, and limitations – as a basis to analyze two cases and draw general conclusions.
Innovative irrigation technology is generally promoted as raising water-use efficiency along with multiple benefits, but these remain elusive in practice, as outlined in the first sub-section below. The limitations have fundamental reasons, as outlined in Section 2.2. To address these issues, our case studies are introduced in Section 2.3.
2.1. Practical limitations of water-efficient irrigation technology
EU policy frameworks place great expectations upon technologies to improve water efficiency. The European Commission emphasizes ‘technological innovation in the field of water, given that water efficiency will be an increasingly important factor for competitiveness’ (CEC, 2008). According to the European Parliament, solutions should be found in ‘clean technologies that facilitate the efficient use of water’ (EP, 2008).
Such technological expectations arise in expert reports on agricultural water use:
Water-efficient irrigation, irrigation on demand and irrigation using brackish water are technologies that will enable the better husbandry of more scarce freshwater resources. Technological developments in respect of irrigation will encompass sensors and communication, intelligent watering systems and high-efficiency delivery mechanisms for water and nutrients, as well as the means of incorporating all of these elements into irrigation ‘packages’ (EIO, 2011: 25).
Likewise water efficiency can be enhanced by better using current installations and/or by adopting new equipment (WssTP, 2012: 9).
The main European farmers’ organisation has likewise advocated technological means to increase water efficiency. In particular, this needs ‘investments in more efficient irrigation systems, use of new technologies (e.g. soil moisture and canopy sensors) to better match irrigation with plant needs, and good agricultural practices’, such as conservation tillage, management of soil fertility, and water retention capacity, and scheduling of irrigation during the night to reduce evaporation (COPA-COGECA, 2007: 4). The basis for improvement is described as follows:
… water efficiency measures that provide complementary benefits, such as reduced energy needs or other environmental benefits, will also deliver better results. In many Member States, efforts are being made to increase the water storage capacity of soil under agricultural land use. The modernisation of irrigation systems has steadily progressed and water productivity has also improved considerably (COPA-COGECA, 2013: 3)
As indicated above, greater water-use efficiency depends on better agricultural practices alongside extra technology. Yet companies generally promote irrigation technology as if it inherently brings all the benefits (interview, COPA-COGECA, 08.07.13). Improperly managed ‘hi-tech’ systems can be as wasteful and unproductive as poorly managed traditional systems (Perry et al., 2009). When incorrectly applied, irrigation technology ‘can cause losses arising on investments made by farmers, thus decreasing the economic water productivity index and the overall sustainability’ (Battilani, 2012).
Beyond a problem-diagnosis of inefficiency, moreover, intensive farming practices can degrade soil and water resources, especially through more input-intensive farming in crops such as maize, vegetables, orchard, and vine cultivation:
Intensive arable production is partly responsible for poor soil structure, soil erosion, loss of soil OM [organic matter] and pollution from fertilisers and pesticides…. The expansion of maize cropping and the move to growing winter cereals in particular have contributed to soil erosion even further (Miller, 2007: 44–45).
Such harmful practices have been driven and supported by EU policies. In past decades CAP subsidies have tended to favour crops with high water demands, such as maize, thus increasing the risk of water shortages under climate-uncertain conditions (Garcia-Vila and Fereres, 2012). Either as price-support or area-based, CAP subsidies likewise have ensured the profitability of some water-intensive crops such as cotton which otherwise would be phased out under a market-orientated scenario; likewise water-price subsidies.
In some cases, water-price increases have induced farmers to adopt technology and appropriate practices for conserving water (Caswell and Zilberman, 1985). Yet water-pricing policies often have been ineffective means to reduce water demand (Molle and Berkoff, 2007, Molle, 2008). Farmers experience rising water prices as an extra penalty. Rather than higher water prices, administrative water allocation or re-allocation lowering the supply often has led farmers to adopt water-efficiency practices (Molden et al., 2010). If agricultural water demand is inelastic, then policies which encourage changes in cropping patterns can be more effective than higher prices (Fraiture and Perry, 2007, Iglesias and Blanco, 2008, Kampas, 2012).
Inelastic water demand results from farmers’ perspectives on water benefits. Water-use efficiency (WUE) and water productivity (WP) are often used interchangeably but have different meanings. WUE specifically means the ratio of biomass produced per unit of irrigation water used, i.e. the sum of transpiration by the crop and evaporation from the soil (Sinclair et al., 1984). By contrast, WP means the ratio of above-ground biomass per unit of water transpired by the crop (Steduto, 2007). Both terms have relevance to farmers’ economic goals. WUE interests mainly the water districts or management agencies, while WP interests more farmers and research community. WP better speaks to perspectives linking water usage with production levels and economic benefit (interview, COPA-COGECA, 08.07.13).
Yet even WP remains distant from farmers’ perspectives. They generally perceive ‘irrigation efficiency’ as maximising net revenue rather than saving water (Knox et al., 2012). Policies seek to lower water usage, and river basin managers try to allocate limited supplies, yet water-saving is not a priority for most farmers (Luquet et al., 2005). They manage labour and other inputs to get better economic gains (Molden et al., 2010). Towards that economic aim, most growers make irrigation decisions by relying on subjective judgements, based only on their practical experience and observation (Knox et al., 2012). Consequently, there have been limited benefits from irrigation technology, as well documented in the technical literature; the following examples compare various techniques.
For example, mobile-laboratory evaluations compared the distribution uniformity and irrigation efficiency of various irrigation systems in California. Although micro irrigation systems are seen as ‘efficient technologies’, they were performing less well than traditional surface irrigation methods such as furrows and borders. To gain the extra benefits of such technology, most important is adequate system design, alongside proper installation, operation and maintenance, regardless of the irrigation method used (Hanson et al., 1995).
Howell (2003) and Irmak et al. (2011) reported the attainable application efficiencies for different irrigation methods, assuming irrigations are applied to meet the crops’ water needs. Microirrigation has the potential to achieve the highest uniformity (90%) in water applied to each plant, yet poor uniformity and application efficiency can result from various causes, e.g., inadequate maintenance, low inlet pressure or pressure fluctuations, emitter clogging, and inadequate system design (Hsiao et al., 2007). Consequently, micro irrigation technology has on-farm efficiencies varying from 0.7 to 0.95 (Howell, 2003).
As another example, a Spanish study compared various irrigation methods via the annual relative irrigation supply index (ARIS), i.e. a ratio of water applied versus water required. It found a greater efficiency of solid-set and drip than surface irrigation. But average annual figures conceal great variations in water applied to a given crop and irrigation efficiency at farm level, partly for lack of adequate knowledge. A remedy would be ‘actions to improve farmers’ water management via a combination of irrigation advisory services and policy measures’ (Salvador et al., 2011: 586).
2.2. Reasons for those limitations and ways to overcome them
Given the above water-efficiency limitations in applying irrigation technology, the literature has outlined some fundamental reasons. They include the following: irrigation equipment is promoted as if the technology per se brings various benefits, farmers seek to maximize net income rather than water productivity per se, innovative technologies can achieve the full potential benefits only through appropriate technical advice, and farmers lack a knowledge-system for anticipating effects of specific irrigation practices or for retrospectively evaluating their irrigation efficiency.
Although research has developed technical scheduling procedures to improve agricultural water management, these have been little adopted, for many reasons.
The one most frequently mentioned by growers is the lack of perceived [financial] benefits relative to their current practices, which they consider adequate. Ease of use and the expenses involved are also important grower considerations (FAO, 2012).
Technical advice on irrigation scheduling is little used at farm level; at most, it helps retrospectively to evaluate seasonal approaches (ibid.).
One obstacle is inadequate knowledge about proper irrigation levels and scheduling over a growing season. Farmers generally lack adequate assistance to develop and adopt better approaches for environmental sustainability, while also maintaining their financial and social objectives (Pereira et al., 2012: 39). For example, sub-surface moisture sensors can improve knowledge about a crop’s need for water. But the technology has limitations, so farmers need technical advice to interpret the measurements; for example, ‘soil humidity sensors are still neither easy to handle nor reliable’ (WssTP, 2012: 33). Moreover, these sensors are not well adapted to all soil types; their installation and maintenance requires the employment of specialised technical staff. The same is true for the canopy sensors, whose proper application is limited to some crops and during specific growing stages, periods of day and climatic conditions.
Improvements in irrigation practices depend on quantitative knowledge of farmers’ current practices in relation to actual and potential crop water use:
Any effort to improve water use efficiency needs to start with the assessment of the actual and attainable efficiencies for the given situation, as quantitatively as possible. This information is fundamental for making rational improvements aiming at raising the overall efficiency to the attainable level (Hsiao et al., 2007: 228, 218).
But such information is rarely available to farmers.
Such difficulties arise for water-management improvements through expert systems. Decision Support Systems (DSS) have aimed to improve crop water use efficiency at farm and water basin scale, but few are widely applied, given the necessary specialised skills. For a DSS to be successful, the key elements have been: giving farmers a simple, timely, user-friendly, free-of-charge, informative system helpful to decide how much to irrigate in everyday practice; tailoring the tools for a large number of crops; calculating the irrigation profitability; and assessing the economic benefit, especially its relevance to the next irrigation. Such benefits have been demonstrated by the Irrinet project in Italy’s Emilia Romagna (Battilani, 2012). Thus more reliable information systems and expert capacity are necessary to guide farmers in using water more efficiently (Battilani, 2013). This exemplifies the broader need for farmer training and education in order to improve modern irrigation management.
As a way forward in the UK, expert support has been recently linking farmers’ responsibility, economic benefits and practical knowledge. A ‘pathway to efficiency’ improves the irrigation network, alongside better practices of soil and water management, e.g. by monitoring whether the right amounts are used at the right place and time. ‘Using financial criteria for water efficiency rather than an engineering one appears a sensible approach when assessing irrigation performance at the farm level since any managerial (e.g. scheduling) and operational (e.g. equipment) inefficiencies associated with irrigation are implicitly included in the assessment’ (Knox et al., 2012: 3). In particular, ‘On-farm water auditing and benchmarking have the potential to provide useful information to farmer decision making, with respect to identifying operational and management changes to improve irrigation system performance and water productivity, and evaluating potential investments in new technology (and advanced practices) or infrastructures’ (ibid: 7).
Such approaches have addressed various obstacles to water-efficiency measures. To exploit the full technological potential requires a broader dissemination of their benefits, specific training of farmers, and coupling properly-designed technological solutions with more precise operational practices to benefit farm economic performance (e.g. Tollefson and Wahab, 1994). In particular, advisory-extension services have enhanced irrigation practices which better fulfil potential benefits of irrigation technology (Hergert et al., 1994, Benham et al., 2000, Ahearn et al., 2003, Genius et al., 2014, Parker et al., 2000, Gold et al., 2013).
Beyond the farm level, greater resource efficiency also depends on shared responsibility among stakeholders, according to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development:
Business undoubtedly has many opportunities to increase its eco-efficient performance and thereby to help de-couple use of nature from overall economic growth… Establishing framework conditions which foster innovation and transparency and which allow sharing responsibility among stakeholders will amplify eco-efficiency for the entire economy and deliver progress toward sustainability (WBCSD, 2000: 6–7).
Analogous issues arise for service-oriented irrigation schemes, designed so that farmers can flexibly obtain water at their convenience, e.g. through on-demand delivery schedules. Here responsibility has institutional complexities. For example, a water users’ organisation (WUO) bears largely fixed costs, as well as somewhat variable energy costs from drainage, excess water application, reuse, disposal, etc. If a WUO or water district relies on gravity-fed water conveyance and delivery systems, then its costs do not vary according to water-volume delivery. In such contexts, if farmers decrease water use, then the WUO must increase water prices to recover its fixed costs. Facing higher water prices, farmers may increase groundwater pumping, thus abstracting more water from aquifers, while distancing their individual practices from any group responsibility. Paradoxically, fostering greater water-use efficiency can generate a financial, environmental and institutional problem.
Given those difficulties for water-efficient techniques, their effective adoption depends on several enabling conditions, especially a policy and institutional context aligning incentives of producers, resource managers and society. Significant synergistic effects can emerge when water-efficiency practices are combined with other agronomic practices such as maintaining soil health and fertility, controlling weeds and avoiding diseases (Molden et al., 2010).
2.3. Methods and sources: EcoWater project
The above issues and earlier questions have been explored through two case studies of service-oriented irrigation schemes within a larger EU-funded research project, EcoWater (see Acknowledgements). It develops a methodology for assessing eco-efficiency at the meso level. The latter is defined as interactions among heterogeneous actors, e.g. between water-service users and providers. As generally understood, eco-efficiency means a ratio between economic advantage and resource burdens, as a basis to evaluate past or potential changes in a system.
The project uses eco-efficiency indicators to evaluate potential innovative practices including technology adoption. The project aims to: assess various options for innovative practices within a specific system; analyse the factors influencing decisions to adopt such practices; and improve understanding of the socio-technical dynamics that influence such decisions.
In the project’s two agricultural case studies, farmers and/or their organisations have already invested in water-efficient technology, going beyond state subsidy alone. The irrigation distribution systems were designed for on-demand water delivery. SCADA technology at hydrants allow farmers to abstract water on demand any time and charges them according to a volumetric tiered water pricing. Each case-study area has strong stimuli for farmers to improve water efficiency, yet the full potential benefits of the technology investment were not being realised, for reasons analysed in the next two sections.
3. Sinistra Ofanto case
Dating from the 1980s, the Sinistra Ofanto irrigation scheme is among the largest multi-cropped irrigated areas in Italy. It is located in south-eastern Foggia province within the Apulia region. Irrigation is crucial for the region’s agricultural production and income, but it also generates resource burdens. Nearly 18.5% of Apulia’s agricultural area is under irrigation; consequently, irrigated crops have contributed 69% of the total value of regional agricultural production, recently quantified as 3.8bn Euros (Fabiani, 2010). The entire study area is characterised by a high number of small land-holdings with intensive, market-oriented practices. The main crops are vineyards, olives, vegetables and fruit orchards (in descending order). The pedo-climatic conditions are favourable for intensive cropping, but profitable farming is strongly dependent on irrigation, due to the scant rainfall and its uneven distribution across the year.
The Sinistra Ofanto system commands an area of 40,500 ha stretching along the left side of the Ofanto River, of which 38,815 ha are irrigable lands and 28,165 ha are serviced with irrigation distribution. Designed and constructed for pressurised on-demand delivery schedule, the irrigation system is managed by a large water users’ organisation (WUO), the Consorzio per la Bonifica della Capitanata (CBC, 1984, Altieri, 1995). The system diverts water from the Ofanto River and supplies it to growers both by gravity and lifting/pumping, ensuring a pressure head of at least 2 bar at each hydrant to enable farmers using micro-irrigation methods.
The system is already equipped with modern technologies to deliver and use water efficiently. From the diversion structure on the Ofanto River, water is conveyed to the Capacciotti reservoir through concrete-lined canals and pipe conduits, along which the flow regulation devices are downstream-controlled, thus manually or automatically adjusted through calibrated control devices enabling Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA). The Capacciotti reservoir, supplies seven concrete-lined storage and compensation reservoirs equipped with downstream-control flow regulation devices that adjust inflows and outflows to feed the district’s piped distribution networks based on the downstream water demand.
PVC buried pipes comprise the open-branched distribution networks. Each sector’s inlet has a control unit, equipped with flow and pressure metering-control devices. Water is supplied to farms on demand by means of multi-users electronically-fed hydrants that control and regulate the deliveries, as well as the discharges demanded and thus flowing in the pipe distribution network. These technologies installed along the main infrastructure help keeping conveyance and distribution losses within 5–10% of the total water abstracted from the Ofanto River, as reported by the WUO’s engineering staff.
Although the main water supply is surface water, during recurrent water shortages farmers pump groundwater from medium-depth (100–150 m) aquifers, especially since the late 1990s (Portoghese et al., 2013). Furthermore, studies found qualitative degradation of groundwater resources, most likely resulting from seawater intrusion into the coastal aquifer and to deep percolation of pollutants, such as fertilisers and pesticides, from intensive farming activities. Given the urgent need to assess these processes and to avoid their adverse environmental impacts, what are the prospects for water-efficiency improvements of irrigated agriculture in the Sinistra Ofanto area?
3.1. Irrigation patterns and resource burdens
The water users organisation (WUO), Consorzio per la Bonifica della Capitanata (henceforth the CBC), is the main irrigation management agency. It is responsible for all the sequential steps along the agriculture water supply chain, i.e. abstraction, conveyance, storage, distribution and final water delivery to farm gates. Established in 1933 by national law of public interest, the CBC is by statute a non-profit organization; it bears all the costs for performing its functions, and these costs are recovered through the water tariffs paid by farmers.
The CBC enforces the principle of solidarity among the different service areas. Even though the costs for supplying irrigation water differ significantly among areas supplied by gravity and by pumping, the tariff structure does not make such a distinction. Rather, as a tool to manage water use, water fees vary according to demand: volumetric tiered water tariffs progressively increase with the seasonal cumulative volumes withdrawn by each farmer. This structure is enforced through individual water metering at the delivery points; all farm hydrants are equipped with an electro-mechanical delivery device allowing the supply of water only to authorised users and storing information of each irrigation event. Besides simplifying the network operations, this technology proved to be very useful for accurate monitoring and control of water distribution, and for achieving better understanding of the irrigation management practices followed by farmers, especially through the possibility to retrieve and analyse historical data series (Zaccaria et al., 2013).
As an irrigation service provider, the CBC is composed of irrigation service users, i.e. farmers. In performing its daily activities, the CBC attempts to reconcile objectives which may be in conflict. Its technical and administrative choices aim to achieve high water-distribution efficiency in order to maximise the economic benefit to farmers. It aims to improve water distribution and use—at the farm level, through an effective operation of the delivery network, and at field and crop level through the technical support to growers aiming at improved water management skills (ibid). Technical support to farmers was effective in the 1980s–1990s but has declined in the last decade, due to WUO budget constraints and lower revenues from Italy’s farm activities.
Irrigation water demand is driven mainly by farmers’ perceptions, by the climatic conditions, and by the economic value of crop yields and production factors. Even beyond periods of water shortage, in some areas farmers pump groundwater in order to avoid the following problems: (i) the restricted-flow demand delivery-schedule that prevents the quick completion of irrigation cycles in medium-large farms, (ii) the restricted-frequency demand-delivery often imposed by the CBC during water shortage periods, (iii) the need to arrange water withdrawals with neighbour farmers supplied by the same hydrants, or (iv) the tiered water fees enforced by the CBC. Also, many farmers still perceive groundwater pumping as somewhat cheaper than water supplied by the CBC, even though the contrary was shown by economic analyses (e.g. Portoghese et al., 2013).
As a more fundamental problem, both the farmers’ perception and the CBC’s analyses ignore the ecological costs of groundwater degradation and remediation. The CBC accepts no responsibility for water-management practices beyond the farm gate. From the growers’ standpoint, groundwater pumping aims to increase and/or stabilise the economic benefits of farming activities. Often farmers combine surface water and groundwater for various reasons such as to maximise crop yields and farm net benefit, or to minimise the seasonal water fees payable to the CBC, or to prevent yield reduction arising from high salinity in the groundwater during peak-demand periods. However, this conjunctive use of surface and groundwater is based solely on farmers’ economic and technical considerations, regardless of environmental burdens such as aquifer depletion and degradation. Furthermore, fields close to the river banks are often irrigated by growers with water pumped out the river. In all these situations, return flows may result from run-off through the drainage networks, as well as from percolation through the soil profile, finally reaching the downstream reaches of the river, wetlands or the aquifer.
Farm activities generate various pressures on land and water resources, including quantitative depletion and qualitative degradation, especially biodiversity loss in farmland and in the natural environment. This harm has several sources: (i) intensive farming and tillage practices, (ii) fertilizers and pesticides application on cultivated fields, (iii) water abstraction from the Ofanto River, (iv) return flows of degraded water to downstream wetlands and aquifers, (v) over-drafting of groundwater, (vi) salinity build-up in cultivated soils, (vii) energy consumption for water pumping, and (viii) increased CO2 emissions from the energy usage related to pumping, transport, machinery, etc.
Relative to those ecological problems, much greater impetus for innovative practices comes from recurrent scarcity of water supply and the prospect of even greater future scarcity and uncertainty. Those problems in turn result from high water-demanding crops and from irrigation scheduling practices. Such decisions are often based solely on farmers’ perceptions; their systems and practices are not monitored to assess the actual performance and efficiency achievements. No systematic technical support is available to growers for their daily or seasonal irrigation planning and scheduling.
Moreover there is detailed evidence of water-use inefficiency at farm level. According to a study of farmers’ irrigation practices in a nearby irrigated area with similar features, there were often mis-matches between crops’ water demand and irrigation applications on several occasions during the season. Although the overall seasonal applied irrigation depths may match a crop’s water demand, farmers often under-irrigate during the early crop stages and over-irrigate during later stages; many choose inadequate timings and application depths. Such inadequate applications may be combined with uneven in-field water distribution, often due to the average low uniformity of irrigation systems—especially when not properly designed, evaluated and maintained; consequently, the farm may have up to 20% lower crop yields and income, along with inefficiencies between 20 and 40% due to excessive water applications (Zaccaria et al., 2010). As the main reason for the mismatch, irrigation scheduling practices are based only on farmers’ perceptions and experiences; missing is status monitoring of soil or plant water, use of ET-based irrigation scheduling, or any other quantitative techniques (ibid). This study confirms a general problem of water-inefficient practices, as also found in the wider technical literature (e.g. Hanson et al., 1995, Hanson et al., 1996, Burt, 2004, Salvador et al., 2011; see Section 1).
3.2. Innovative practices for stakeholders’ consideration
Resource-efficiency could be enhanced by properly utilising several innovative technologies and practices. As listed in Table 1, several feasible options are already installed and implemented in the Sinistra Ofanto area, i.e. along the water conveyance and distribution system or on some progressive farms, but require either some refinements or significant operational improvements to gain their full economic and environmental benefits.