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Our World View: World Water Day 2013

Posted 21 March 2013

We need to adapt our production systems to harvest the water when it is available and use it sparingly when it is needed.

Dr Jim Monaghan

A monthly comment from a member of staff at Harper Adams University

Dr Jim Monaghan, Principal Lecturer in Fresh Produce

"We have had a very dry one, then a very wet one. Most farmers and growers are wondering what sort of summer we will get this year in the UK.

Maybe a more important question is what will the next 20 or 30 summers bring in way of rainfall? We are being told to prepare for more extreme one-off weather events alongside increased winter rainfall and reduced summer rainfall. 

Water is a key input for all crop production, whether broad acre arable crops or intensive fresh produce crops and Europe, like other parts of the world, faces a major challenge – supplying more food to meet increasing demands whilst simultaneously reducing its environmental impact.

Some scientist are predicting that we may need to start to look to production systems more common in Southern Europe within our lifetimes. This would mean increasing the use of irrigation and stored water will have an important role to play.

In Central and Northern Europe, irrigation uses less than 5% of total water abstractions, although they can still have significant environmental impacts, particularly in drier catchments in the driest months and driest years when resources are most constrained. In general, supplemental irrigation is used, most notably on high value field-scale (outdoor) horticulture, where it serves to maximise yield and quality of fruit and vegetables for supermarkets and processors.

In contrast, in parts of Mediterranean Europe, irrigation accounts for more than 80% of total abstractions and is used in intensive and extensive cropping, including field and protected horticulture.

Clearly, securing adequate water for agriculture will be essential to meet future food demands for a growing population against a more restricted water availability. But there are additional pressures on water use: most notably through the Water Framework Directive (WFD 2000/60/E) which provides the major driver for achieving sustainable water management across all EU Member States. In addition, the general public get very upset to see rain guns running in potato crops when they have a hose pipe ban in their back gardens!

What can we do? Well, if the climatologists are correct we will be seeing more irrigation in the UK, interspersed with very wet periods. We need to adapt our production systems to harvest the water when it is available and use it sparingly when it is needed. 

Farmers are experts in responding to awkward weather and taking up innovative approaches to crop production so with a bit of luck, we will cope with the weather’s wild mood swings and carry on farming."

This comment has been written to coincide with the UN's World Water Day, March 22, 2013

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