When regions are water-stressed, local farmers are forced to use less water (or lower-quality water) for irrigation, which affects not just the quality and quantity of the crops, but also the quality of life for the growers, in terms of lost income. And with droughts hitting many areas of the world, developing more efficient ways to water crops, while still maintaining yields, could make a big difference in local food systems.
One project, called FLOW-AID (Farm Level Optimal Water Management Assistant for Irrigation Under Deficit), has been working on innovative technologies that would allow farmers to increase their water use efficiency by up to 60%, while also reducing the fertilizer demands by up to 30%. These same technologies could also help to reduce nutrient leaching, which not only affects the soil in the fields, but also any waterways downstream from them.
"In the FLOW-AID project scientists of universities and research stations have co-operated with engineering companies to develop new systems and technologies for irrigation and drainage. The program has now resulted in innovative sensor technologies, which are integrated into a grower decision support system. The system has been evaluated at sites located in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain and over the years it has been improved." - FLOW-AID
The system is built around solar-powered, low-cost, wireless sensors (dielectric tensiometers), which enable farmers to get exact data from each location at any time, thereby optimizing their watering practices.
By being able to use sensors to determine the moisture levels in the soil, and then release just enough water for the plants, exactly when they need it, farmers could maintain their current crop yields, yet use quite a bit less water and fertilizer. The resulting savings could enable farmers to continue to invest in other technologies that would increase water efficiency and boost crop yields, which could produce more income for them.
For more information on how researchers are getting "more crop per drop", including detailed case studies, see FLOW-AID.