Digital innovation
allows farmers to
improve productivity
- a focus on irrigation

Climate change will exacerbate the scarcity of and competition for water. As rainfall declines and temperatures rise, the availability of water becomes uncertain. Because agriculture can be water-intensive, irrigation is often our best bet to offset these uncertainties, and feed the growing global population. However, to ensure the sustainable use of water resources for irrigation, researchers and practitioners must be very clever about how they develop novel irrigation systems of the future to meet the needs of farmers.

IWMI is pioneering digital innovation tools that can leapfrog existing technologies and have the potential to be game changers. These tools will play a key role in the transition to irrigation systems that are productive and profitable while being resilient and well adapted to climate change. The tools capitalize on new technologies and big data to sustainably manage both the supply of and demand for water resources. Tools developed in public-private partnerships will give farmers, water planners and managers more efficient ways to manage water resources and build resilience to climate change.

Sensing the right amount of water

Farmers in Amhara, Ethiopia, have access to water via the Koga Irrigation Scheme, but that water has not been used efficiently. IWMI is providing smallholder farmers with tools that allow them to assess whether their crops should be irrigated or not.

WaPOR is the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) portal to monitor Water Productivity through Open access of Remotely sensed derived data. WaPOR assists countries in monitoring water productivity, identifying water productivity gaps, proposing solutions to reduce these gaps and contributing to a sustainable increase in agricultural production. IWMI scientists are working with partners to build their capacity in the use of WaPOR data. WaPOR uses satellite data to monitor agricultural water productivity at different scales. This database provides the information necessary to generate solutions to local challenges linked to water and land productivity as well as water demand management.

At the farm level in Ethiopia, and with the support of partners and donors, IWMI scientists are drawing on WaPOR data to work with farmers, national researchers and private companies in the introduction of low-cost sensors to improve irrigation scheduling and use water more efficiently while improving productivity of the land.

One such tool is the Wetting Front Detector (WFD), which is an ingenious plastic tube that tells the farmer when sufficient water has accumulated in the root zone by pushing up a flag. By installing these at different depths, farmers can monitor irrigation flow until the soil has been sufficiently wetted.

Another tool, the Chameleon Soil Water Sensor, connects via wires to a soil moisture sensor installed at different depths. It translates a plant’s uptake of water into a simple color. The colors blue, green and red correspond to very wet, moist and dry, respectively.

IWMI worked with farmers and national researchers in Koga to assess the efficiency of WFDs and Chameleon Sensors in the field. The results were very promising. According to key farmers, they reduced their water consumption by 35%, which helped extend the irrigation cycle from the local storage reservoirs. The decrease in irrigation water did not mean a smaller harvest. In fact, wheat yield increased from 10% to 20% according to farmers’ estimates.

The farmers noted that improved water demand management resulted in a faster rotation among water users in the same group, and resulted in a decline in water-related conflicts. The water saved was used to extend the area under cultivation within the blocks, and to also reduce water deliveries from main scheme operations to night storages.

Connecting solar irrigation pumps to data platforms

IWMI research has indicated that there is untapped and sustainable groundwater potential in many regions of Africa. However, use of that water must be monitored to ensure that recharge is managed and the resource is sustainable.

Solar irrigation pumps (SIPs) offer a sustainable solution to groundwater extraction. However, with near zero operational costs, it is easy for irrigators to overuse the scarce water resources. IWMI researchers are investigating the land that is most suitable for solar irrigation, and how SIPs will impact groundwater resources and the connected water, agricultural, energy and environmental systems.

IWMI has developed the Solar Irrigation Information System, a prototype platform that uses near real-time data from Futurepump, a private sector provider of solar pumps equipped with data loggers which measure the amount of energy used. The data derived from individual pumps allow managers to aggregate data to identify different patterns of use in real time. This helps future design, needs and operations of pumps to support design teams. The data also provide information on rates of abstraction of shallow groundwater reserves, which ultimately allows us to identify when and how much water is being abstracted and if this is sustainable, or how it could be better managed in relation to rainfall recharge.

Farmers can use the resulting data to better understand where they can sustainably use solar irrigation, and policymakers can use it to better manage groundwater resources.

Maintaining irrigation systems

Around 40% of the world’s food is produced using irrigation. Yet, many irrigation schemes seem to follow a Build-Neglect-Rehabilitate cycle, which overlooks maintenance and infrastructure needs.

IWMI developed an irrigation asset tool called Systematic Asset Management Software (SAMS). SAMS is an open-source and user-friendly application which captures irrigation infrastructure investments in a database and tracks performance and predicts when maintenance is needed. This innovative process will enable stakeholders to audit investments and keep track of maintenance.

IWMI started a new project in 2020 titled ‘Targeting investments in medium- to large-scale irrigation schemes’. Under this project, IWMI is furthering the development of SAMS to use remote sensing to digitally manage irrigation infrastructure and assess irrigation performance. The project is developing integrated tools that enhance the manager’s capacity to carry out a quick assessment and make an investment decision that will increase the performance of irrigation schemes.

Irrigation is only one of the ways in which practitioners, researchers and decision makers can engage in sustainable water management practices. Nevertheless, in many places, its potential remains untapped.