Irrigation Technologies Are Inextricably Linked To The Evolution Of Civilization. Innovations In Irrigation Played A Key Role.

By Raviv Itzhaky

Irrigation Technologies Are Inextricably Linked To The Evolution Of Civilization. Innovations In Irrigation — such as basin irrigation in Ancient Egypt or Roman aqueducts — Played A Key Role in bringing water from outside sources into inner cities and towns. They are not just historical breakthroughs; in fact, many of these technologies and systems are still relevant today.

With agriculture estimated to account for 70% of global water use, new technologies will be needed to manage, regulate and optimize the use of water as the reserves of underground water are being depleted at an alarming rate. Food growers need to rethink the way they use water, whether this is through implementing new tools, leveraging more precise data on irrigation needs or finding ways to monitor and improve their existing irrigation strategy.

Water Wars: A Not-So-Distant Reality?

A landmark study, led by scientist Dr. Fabio Farinosi from the European Commission’s Joint Research Center in 2018, tried to map out how water wars will emerge around the world and which countries are most likely to see a water-related conflict in the coming decades. The thesis of “water wars” is based around the concept that communities, politicians and businesses will end up caught up in wars over dwindling water supplies in the coming decades. The sad reality is that this isn’t just a thesis but a reality in some regions. A recent article in The New York Times highlights how some communities in Arizona are being depleted from access to water as a result of regulation not imposing strict limits on farmers’ access to the regions’ scarce aquifers.

Aquifers are extremely delicate; once tapped, they can take more than 6,000 years to replenish. And while aquifers account for somewhere between 25% to 40% of the world’s drinking water, according to The New York Times’ article, about 70% of the water withdrawn is used for agriculture. In 2015, NASA published a comprehensive study of global groundwater reserves.

Jay Famiglietti, the senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and his team discovered that of the planet’s 37 major aquifer systems, they discovered 21 were on the verge of collapse. In countries like the U.S., 85% of access to water is public and water laws in many regions make access to water virtually free to farmers, who only need to cover the costs of pumping it. Are these loose regulations also becoming a burden to incentivize efficient and responsible water use?

The Technology To Overcome These Challenges

Drip irrigation has been one of the biggest irrigation technology breakthroughs of the 20th century. Delivering water to roots through perforated tubes can reduce water use by up to 70%, while increasing crop yields by 20% to 90%. Over the past 20 years, the area under drip and other “micro” irrigation methods has risen, according to National Geographic, from 1.6 million hectares to more than 10.3 million. While this is encouraging, there is still ample room for improvement with less than 4% percent of the world’s irrigated land currently equipped with micro-irrigation systems.

Agriculture needs to move past flood irrigation, which, in spite of wasting a lot of water, remains the most popular method of irrigation worldwide. Pivot irrigation technology can be a cost-effective and efficient solution. In addition to aerial imagery, mounted cameras and sensors can be added to smart center pivots that are capable of applying water, fertilizer, chemicals and more.

Besides dramatically reducing the amount of water used for irrigation, it is also important to reuse water. Countries like the Netherlands are taking bold steps to ensure that by 2030, all Dutch greenhouses reuse drainage water. The country’s Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality has a mission to achieve fully circular holicilture by 2030.

Artificial Intelligence: Data-Driven Water Optimization

Another major technological leap that will help us reshape the future of water irrigation is artificial intelligence (AI). We have an unprecedented amount of data which holds the key to optimal irrigation strategies. Machine learning, and in particular deep learning algorithms, can help us interpret data from images and identify patterns that spotlight irrigation issues, as well as other challenges such as pests.

In my recent article for the World Economic Forum, I highlight how some of these AI-driven technologies translate to tangible efficiencies to save water in the fields: from creating an optimal irrigation schedule to discovering leaks. However, these technologies come with their own limitations and challenges which food growers need to be aware of:

  1. There is still a need to build trust in AI to put it at the core of irrigation systems — arguably one of the highest risk decisions any food grower will need to take.
  2. The cost of hardware, when needed, can be very high, or even prohibitive for some food growers.
  3. There is still a long way for the tech industry to simplify the way in which the resulting insights from AI and machine learning tools are shared.

It’s normal that people feel overwhelmed with hundreds of graphs and charts full of thousands of data points. So while the technology might be available, equipping managers, agronomists and teams in the fields and greenhouses with simpler tools to interpret this data is crucial. Even if the technology behind AI is extremely complex and sophisticated, it should be as clear and simple as Google’s homepage to the end user.

With so much water going to waste or being used carelessly, optimizing water use on a global basis will require a joint effort. Technology can help us use less water, reuse water or preempt the exact amount of water needed for the optimal yield. However, for emerging technologies like AI, data literacy and cross-platform orchestration will require a major learning curve just like drip irrigation did in the 1970s and ’80s. In addition, governments, businesses, communities and food growers will need to join forces and make conscious decisions that are mindful of what’s at stake for future generations.

This news was originally published at Forbes.