Agriculture: Improving water quality for all

This blog post was originally posted on the 2degrees network here. We will be participating in a 2degrees webinar, “Agriculture: Where food and water meet” in December, you can apply to attend this here (you must register with 2degrees to apply for the webinar – free of charge!).


I recently read Cate Lamb’s blog post, Avoiding bluewash: How to move beyond efficiency and realize the business benefits of water stewardship, and I liked the definition of a good water steward:

“… good water stewards are those individuals, businesses and countries that have a deep understanding of the impact their activities have upon water resources and the risks this poses to their success”.

I think Cate has the definition to a T. I know of many farmers who are good water stewards by this definition and this is vitally important. The role agriculture has to play in water stewardship is a big one.

The conditions in the last two years in the UK have made water management a challenge for all.

The conditions in the last two years in the UK have made water management a challenge for all.

Agriculture accounts for around 70% of global freshwater withdrawals, even up to 90% in some fast-growing economies [1]. In the UK, drinking water for livestock is the biggest form of water usage accounting for 41% of the total, followed closely by irrigation (38%) [2].

On farm, water is one of the most important natural resources, whether sourced from rain, rivers or aquifers, too much or too little can cause major challenges.

Water is essential for all dimensions of life. Globally, 40% of the world’s population face water shortages and the quality of water in rivers and aquifers continues to deteriorate. With rising populations, it is predicted that by 2030 the world will need to produce 50% more food and energy [3], and by 2050 we will need 50% more water for food production alone [4].

Despite the need for more water to sustain a growing demand for produce, rainfall patterns in the UK have been far from average in the last few years. In the last two years alone we’ve experienced droughts and severe flooding. Sudden rainfall events can lead to increased soil run-off which will include the loss of nutrients and crop protection products. Not only will this loss be detrimental to the field and the crop, it will also be detrimental to the quality of water courses in the catchment.

At LEAF, we’ve been working with Catchment Sensitive Farming to help share some of the ways in which farmers have been improving the quality of the water on their farms. Some of the ways this has been done are very simple, for example, a well-positioned run off buffer can prevent the loss of up to an estimated 18 tonnes of sediment over a few years.


This video illustrates two methods of preventing run-off and improving water quality on farm; an off ditch wetland and a run-off buffer

Other methods for improving water quality involve slowing the flow of water through ditches on the farm to allow sedimentation, whilst adding reed beds can help capture extra nutrients that have escaped into the water course. It’s really about having various methods on the farm to help reduce run off at the source, minimise the pathways available for run off and reduce the direct entry of any run off into the water course, all of which can be very simple and cost effective.

The conditions in the last two years in the UK, from drought in 2011 to flooding in 2012, have made water management a challenge for all. However, to quote LEAF’s Chairman, Stephen Fell’s introduction to Simply Sustainable Water, “Water management is a global issue; however, the solutions must happen locally”.

References
1 – Beddington (2011) Foresight: The Future of Food and Farming
2 – Falkenmark, M. and J. Rockström: Balancing Water for Humans and Nature. The New Approach in Ecohydrology, 2004
3 – 4th UN World Water Development Report, 2012
4 – Defra (2011) Water Usage in Agriculture and Horticulture Results from the Farm Business Survey 2009/10 and the Irrigation Survey 2010

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