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Upstream and downstream water use in agriculture – a fine balancing act

By: Lani Botha

Green Business Journal 9 (2013)

Eye-watering reflections on agriculture and H2O

Increasingly aggressive competition in the modern commercial agricultural marketplace vies with anecdotal evidence that traditional and small-scale co-operative farming should not be abolished. As water shortages add pressure, the upstream and downstream industry impacts on agriculture are also becoming a hot button begging for bridging collaboration among resource competitors.

Although less than a third of the planet’s freshwater is available to sustain life on earth – the remaining two-thirds being on ice at the poles, water cooler exchanges about H2O scarcity have not yet reached the level of popularity they deserve.

Industry, on the other hand, is acutely aware of how the uneven surface distribution of this constant affects not only the bottom line, but also the sustainability of mining, agriculture and manufacturing futures.

Eye-watering predictions

Sunny South Africa, meted out less than half earth’s 985 millimetres of rainfall annually, is water-stressed – increasingly so as you move west. Adding a tinge of rouge to this bleak picture, the warming planet will amplify floods and droughts, higher evaporation rates and soil degradation.

While South Africa carries an extensive albeit ageing system of water catchment, damming and man-made transfer tributaries, freshwater quality labours under swelling pollution, wetland and river catchment abolition, and deforestation – as mining, agriculture, manufacturing and energy companies scramble to meet the diverse demands of Africa’s growth trajectory amid urbanisation.

When I attended the Gauteng Water Summit in Johannesburg pre-COP17, the Department of Water and Environmental Affairs confirmed that 2015 would be the year that Gauteng water demand would outstrip supply, while in 2025 the buck would stop (drinking) in the rest of the country.

Although about 36% more South Africans can access potable water today as opposed to 1994, a hazardously similar percentage
of our water is today unaccounted for – that is, R11 billion or half the water in the Vaal dam wasted annually. In a country where we spend one-and-a-half times more on clothing than on education, with a corresponding premium on DStv subscription over retirement annuities, a shift in thinking to conservation wisdom means a shift in attitude rather than amplitude.

Same issues, different industry

Resource cost and supply reliability, the pace of technology advances and knowledge transfer, worker rights and compensation, waste management and regeneration, and fluctuating market demographics play devil’s advocate across industries heavily reliant on one another for stability.

The trick here is for each industry to invest now in the latest clean and resource-efficient technologies available to market – to ensure their operations do not affect each other adversely. After all, industries are competing for the same scarce resources, while time is agile and balance the golden mean.

Also dominating dialogue at the country’s first Industrial Resource Efficiency Conference earlier this year, cleaner production and improved resource use needs to be balanced with employment creation if we are to ensure South Africa’s sustainable global competitiveness.

Food for thought: yielding the axe

Although the US department of Agriculture’s latest World Agricultural Production report puts South African commercial agriculture productivity safely ahead of our sub-Saharan cousins, we are far behind the yields per hectare achieved further up the Continent and in the European Union. Aside from output per hectare, our productivity is also benchmarked against capital, labour, fertilizers, irrigation, fuel, access to markets and insurance.

Interdependence: agriculture and water

Agriculture including irrigation requires 60% of the country’s water resources, while mining/industrial and urban/domestic users each require only a tenth of our precious water reserves – the remaining fifth in environmental application, the Water Research Commission reports. To make common sense of agriculture’s mammoth share, consider that affluent households spend nearly half their water just on watering the garden.

Although downstream users may use substantially less water, the irreversible damage of Acid Mine Drainage (AMD), effluent discharge (especially from non-compliant Waste Water Treatment Works) and inefficient distribution systems highlight the murky fact that water services can’t be provided without clean water resources.

However, the management of our water resources (rivers, dams, wetlands and groundwater) and water services (access to potable water and sanitation) are dealt with separately in the Constitution and legislation – and perhaps therein lies the problem.

Tomorrow’s ‘hydrogarchs’

Rand Water alone provides 45% of the South African headcount and 60% of the economy with water it sells to local authorities, mines and factories, distributed over an 18 000km2 area that includes Gauteng, parts of Mpumalanga, the North West, Free State and Limpopo Provinces. Indirectly, this supplies 12 million homes, schools and businesses with clean water.

As chief water consumers, farming and agroprocessing communities are natural water custodians. Poorly operated and overextended wastewater treatment works hold material risk for farmers, as water becomes unfit for irrigation, recreational or livestock watering uses, which directly and severely impacts downstream users.

Conversely, commercial farming increases soil erosion through ploughing, overgrazing, logging and road building – creating murky water and raised salt and mineral content; while fertiliser use compounds nitrate and phosphate levels – resulting in algae blooms and eutrophication, and the downstream harm in pesticides.

Upstream, pollution due to industry chemical, consumer sewage, mining waste and infrastructure breakdown related to urbanisation and industrialisation adversely affect the pH, colour and murkiness, temperature, as well as nutrient, mineral and salt content of water sorely needed for agricultural use.

Whose problem is it anyway?

Poor water management in the North West Province Water this year afflicted 237 local authorities and was brought on by a high concentration of industries and factories with a correspondingly high concentrated water demand – which brings me back to the importance of a balanced approach.

In the Province, business was left to mop up a problem that rightfully belonged to a District Council (water management) and Municipality (distribution).

While industry, climate change and management inefficiencies vie for blame, the truth is alternative decentralised solutions need to be unearthed without delay. Because among the millions affected by the NWP crisis are subsistence farmers, already dealing with the pinch of more frequent droughts of the past two decades, which not only depletes their livestock but also exacerbates stock theft, veld fires and animal diseases.

Urban tolling crisis

Potchefstroom residents had to survive on 40 litres of water each earlier this year (2013), while metropolitan municipality Ekurhuleni’s 3 million residents receive 340 million kilolitres annually – yet the City will spend an additional R1.3 billion over the next decade just to halve its water waste!

Fair trade: a dietary or subsistence issue?

A decade-old Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) report identified sugar cane, rice, cotton and wheat as the world’s ‘thirstiest’ crops, accounting for 58% of the world’s irrigated farmland. Yet, half the world depends on rice as food and income source, cotton is a vital cash crop for African, Asian and Latin American SMEs, and sugar is too lucrative a cash cow for the EU and US to pass up.

Looking at South Africa, where 1.5% of the land mass under irrigation requires 63% of the country’s available freshwater to produce 30% of our crop yield, PR alone will not save these farmers – should a tug of war over water spill over into their fields.

Yet only 12% of our land is considered arable and only 3% abundant for crop farming, with 69% of South Africa’s surface area given over to grazing and livestock farming. Of course, the budding, better-off population demands more animal and fish proteins, fresh fruit and vegetables, exacerbating demand and supply complexities.

Light at the end of the causeway

While farmers grapple with higher input costs and expected yields on smaller tracts of arable land using less water and harmful chemicals, they are also challenged to rethink old farming methods and tools – ears close to the ground, so as not to miss news of a tested or proven novelty.

Globalisation has brought to our shores the definite advantages of technology and farming practice knowledge transfer to the benefit of local agricultural industries.

Water-wise agriculture

‘New’ farming models, such as terracing and reforestation to combat soil erosion and improve carbon sinking, improved weather forecasting and insurance, conservation and no-tillage farming, wetland restoration, co-operative small-scale farming practices, animal manure biogas fuel generation and repopulation of mono-culture grassland, are begging local attention by virtue of their proven commercial and environmental benefits.

Innovations in soil and water regeneration, seed and fertisliser, and irrigation technologies will be reviewed in depth in the next issue – to see where and how we may be missing the boat that’s certainly out there!

Source: Igor Shildermanov’s chapter “World fresh water resources” in Peter H. Gleck (editor) 1991, Water in Crisis: A Guide to the World’s fresh Water Resources. (Numbers are rounded)
Source: Igor Shildermanov’s chapter “World fresh water resources” in Peter H. Gleck (editor) 1991, Water in Crisis: A Guide to the World’s fresh Water Resources. (Numbers are rounded)

 

Eight unbelievable solutions to future water shortages

From growing glaciers to making rain with lasers, what are the innovative technologies that could help us tackle the global water crisis?

It’s estimated that we use 9tn cubic metres of water every year. As the global population grows, it is becoming an increasingly precious resource, with millions forced to walk for more than a mile to collect their daily supply. We investigate the innovative technologies that will help tackle our water crisis in future.

1. Growing glaciers

More than half of the world’s fresh water is stored in glaciers, 15 times more than all of the world’s lakes, rivers and wetlands combined. As a result of climate change, almost every glacier studied by the World Glacier Monitoring Service has been found to be shrinking and meltwater is simply lost to the rivers and sea.

In her book Adventures in the Anthropocene, Gaia Vince tells the story of Indian geo-engineer Chewang Norphel, who lives in Ladakh on the edge of the Himalayas and who has sought to counter the problem by growing glaciers. Norphel diverts meltwater onto little plateaux where it freezes. He has created 10 artificial glaciers this way, which can be used for water in the dry summer months.

2. A bath without water

At the age of 17, Ludwick Marishane was sunbathing in Limpopo, South Africa’s northernmost province. His friend said idly to him: “Man, why doesn’t somebody invent something that you can just put on your skin and you don’t have to bath.”Marishane did exactly that. He researched on his Nokia 6234 mobile phone, eventually formulating a lotion called DryBath. Marishane says that DryBath – a blend of essential oils, bioflavonoids, and odour-eliminating chemical tawas –saves four litres of water ever session, a total of a million litres in total.

3. Ultra water efficient shower

We are all familiar with the moment. You get into the shower, turn the tap, then avoid the water until the temperature equalises. For Peter Cullin, from Adelaide, this is a problem. “Every minute of every day, in millions of homes around the world quality fresh drinking water is lost to the drain from inefficient showers.” To solve the dilemma, Cullin has created his “Cullector Ultra Efficient Shower”, a screw-in device that captures water at the beginning of a shower and feeds it back into the system. If installed in 1,000 showers, Cullin says the device would save 200m litres of water a year. A similar system has been invented by Richard Ogodeton from Brighton.

4. The lifesaver bottle

Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink”, wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. This paradox struck Michael Pritchard while watching news reports of the Boxing Day tsunami a decade ago. Clean water was being brought in on trucks as the floodwater was too dirty. To solve this problem, he invented his “lifesaver” bottle, which uses a pump to force water through a 15-nanometre filter, cleansing it of all bacteria and viruses. Since its launch, the Lifesaver Bottle has been used by hikers, aid companies and the British army in Afghanistan.

5. Rainmaking with lasers

In the 1840s, James P Espy thought burning large fires in the American west would bring rain to the east. In the 1950s, there were attempts at cloud seeding. Now, the idea of rainmaking has returned to the scientific agenda. The idea this time is to fire lasers into the atmosphere. Properly-directed pulses of light have been shown to help ice sublime and vapour condense. The World Meteorological Organisation recently debated the future use of this new technology. One of the possibilities is to use lasers to induce rain at times of drought.

6. The fold up toilet

Along with the shower, the toilet is one of the home’s greatest source of water waste. As much as seven litres can vanish in a single flush and, wanting to improve matters, two students from the University of Huddersfield have inventedIota, the folding toilet. Iota’s design is markedly different to the traditional toilet and, as such, makes more efficient use of water. Gareth Humphreys and Elliott Whiteley, Iota’s inventors, claim that if installed it could save 10,000 litres per person every year.

7. Leak monitoring

Despite all the water wasted inside the home – dripping taps, inefficient toilets and showers – utility companies acknowledge that as much as a third is lost to leaks before it even arrives. Tackling this problem is Zonescan Alpha, a software that pinpoints leaks and relays data back to a control centre. It works by embedding sensors throughout a network and has been successfully trialled by Albstadtwerke, a German utility company, which says it helped reduce waste by 2m litres.

8. Solar powered water purification

Hot climates suffer the most from a lack of water, making the invention of 16-year-old American, Deepika Kurup, all the more intriguing. Hailed as one of the USA’s brightest young scientists, this year Kurup was awarded the US Stockholm Junior Water Prize for her ingenious solar-chemical purification process. This involves exposing titanium dioxide and zinc oxide to ultra violet radiation from the sun to produce a photo catalytic composite that cleans water. “This technology is green, safe, cost effective and easily deployable,” said Kurup.

Source: The Guardian