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Every Drop Counts: The Future of Irrigation in Agriculture
January 28, 2022
5 min read
Water is a natural resource that should be available for everyone. Public water supply solutions and legislation have so far allowed industries to largely brush away the water scarcity topic from their radar. However, with populations growing, economic activity increasing and climate change affecting the weather patterns, we can no longer afford to overexploit our freshwater sources — new, sustainable practices must be developed and implemented instead. Pipelife’s experts on irrigation solutions Konstantinos Akritanakis and Dusan Jankovic share their knowledge on the current state of water use in Europe’s agriculture and their vision about the sector’s future.
The Water Dilemma: Can We Use Less While Growing More?
The development of the agricultural sector is not only responsible for increased water consumption but also highly dependent on freshwater availability. According to the European Environment Agency, the agricultural sector is responsible for 24% of water abstraction in the European Union. Irrigation is applied to protect crops from irregular rainfall as well as to increase the yield and quality of the harvest.
By improving irrigation technologies and on-site water management, significant water savings can be achieved — providing food security for communities while protecting our water sources from overexploitation. The estimates show that it could be possible to save up to 43% of the water volume abstracted by switching to more efficient irrigation systems and practices, reusing treated wastewater, and growing drought-resistant crops.
How Can We Make Agriculture More Sustainable?
Undeniably, a large-scale transformation of the agricultural sector within the EU requires significant investments. So far, the advancements have been slow.
Konstantinos Akritanakis, R&D Project Manager for irrigation solutions at Pipelife, explains: “In countries like Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria and others that are vulnerable to water scarcity, water is still affordable. Currently, it is much cheaper to drill a well than to invest in a system for water reuse. That is why farmers prefer to drill wells or use another nearby water source that would result in minimal costs.”
For years, Pipelife has been developing and promoting solutions that reduce water consumption, such as wastewater treatment, micro irrigation and rainwater harvesting. Research is ongoing on how these solutions could be combined and adapted for agriculture while minimizing costs for farmers.
Wider use of rainwater harvesting is one possibility, especially in regions where periods of intense rainfall are followed by periods of drought.
Dusan Jankovic, Pipelife’s Business Development Manager of Irrigation Systems, comments: “We see an increase in projects for homeowners where Pipelife’s retention and attenuation crate systems are used for collecting rainwater, for example, from the rooftop. Afterwards, the stored water is used for watering the yard or the garden. We have received very good feedback from our customers, and we are working on similar water reuse systems to be applied in agriculture for greenhouses and fields.”
Agriculture and Water Initiatives: Expected Changes
A report carried out by the European Court of Auditors in 2021 discovered that the EU funding for irrigation projects currently has weak safeguards against unsustainable water use. In addition, rural development programs have seldom supported water retention measures and water reuse infrastructure.
However, the situation is likely to change, as more frequent droughts are expected in the future — especially in southern and south-western Europe.
“The tables will be turned. Water will be more expensive than today, and drilling wells will be more expensive because groundwater tables are sinking every year. Also, the pumps for the wells and other equipment will become costlier. Therefore, investing in water reuse systems will become more attractive,” states Jankovic.
On the one hand, charges for water use in agriculture and/or penalizations for not complying with water protection rules are likely to be introduced in the future. On the other, more comprehensive financial support for investments in sustainable water use in agriculture and the adoption of resource-saving practices is also expected. Therefore, informing farmers and supporting them in the adaptation of the new technologies available is crucial.
“We can create solutions that take care of field drainage, rainwater collection and water reuse in combination with water-saving precision irrigation methods. Also, for greenhouses, we can design rooftop rainwater harvesting systems, guiding excess water to an underground water storage system for later use. Our calculations estimate that this way, it would be possible to save up to 50% of the water needed for irrigation,” comments Akritanakis, “We are aware that this is a system for the future, but are also aware that the change must already start today.“