Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Irrigation improvement in Asia

The population boom continues in Asia as one billion more people are expected to be created in the next 40 years. This will mean many more mouths to feed and agricultural experts say that improvements need to be made to irrigation systems through the continent. Depending on rain alone will not be able to grow the amount of food to feed everyone. Crops are too susceptible to damage by either drought or floods. Irrigation systems began to be built on Asia in the 1970s but a renewed push is needed to expand or upgrade existing irrigation.

From the IPS, writer Marwaan Macan-Markar attended an Asian Development Bank meeting that discussed the issue.

"Irrigated agriculture is a more secure platform," says Thierry Facon, senior water management officer at the Asia-Pacific office of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). "Rain-fed agriculture is less productive."

This distinction has become more stark against the backdrop of uncertain weather patterns arising from climate change. "Farmers are reluctant to invest in good seeds and fertiliser in rain-fed areas because of climate change uncertainties," Facon explained to IPS. "It is in this area that you find most of the rural poor and vulnerable populations."

Studies by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) mirror this reality. "Approximately 27 million hectares of rain-fed rice are frequently affected by drought," states a report by one of the region’s premier rice research bodies based in Los Banos, in the Philippines. "The rain-fed rice environments experience multiple abiotic stresses and are characterised by high levels of uncertainty, particularly with regard to the timing, duration and intensity of rainfall."

But if the irrigation systems built and managed by governments are to help better rice and wheat yields, these largely ageing water distribution networks must be upgraded to meet farmers’ new demands, according to a clutch of new studies released recently at a meeting in Manila hosted by the Asian Development Bank (AsDB).

Many of the current irrigation systems were built when the Green Revolution began to sweep across the continent in the 1960s. This radical push to increase rice production through the introduction of high-yielding rice varieties in the paddy fields across Asia has been credited for helping slash the numbers living in hunger.

According to the U.N. food agency, the Green Revolution accounted for a 300 percent increase in rice production in the past four decades, helping to "reduce the proportion of hunger from 34 percent in 1970 to 16 percent in 2006."

And now, as the region faces the challenge of having to feed 1.5 billion new mouths in the next four decades, attention is once again turning to what the irrigation systems can deliver. "Asia’s population will reach five billion people by 2050 and feeding 1.5 billion additional people will require irrigation systems that generate more value per drop of water," states ‘Growing More Food with Less Water: How Can Revitalising Asia’s Irrigation Help?’ one of the studies released at the AsDB meeting that drew some 600 policymakers.

"Asia accounts for 70 percent of the world’s irrigated land and is home to some of the oldest and largest irrigation schemes," states the Manila-based Bank. "But most systems were built before the 1970s, function poorly and often fail to match the needs of farmers."

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