Cotton production has gotten increasingly slammed for its considerable impact on the environment, but researchers are offering up new ways to make cultivating the commodity friendlier.
Globally, according to the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC), 71 percent of water withdrawals are used for agriculture, and in Pakistan, where cotton is the most predominant crop, that number climbs to 94 percent.
The issue, needless to say, is a pressing one.
At an ICAC meeting titled, “Reducing the Water Footprint of Cotton,” Dr. S. Hassan Ahmed from Sudan shared methods for reducing water use in irrigation, Ahmed discussed implantation of new irrigation systems, more precise water management, optimization of irrigation through irrigation scheduling models and use of rain water harvesting and conservation tillage techniques.
“He [Dr. Ahmed] emphasized that free or nominal water prices do not encourage efficient water use and that water should be prices according to volume (quantity) applied and not area,” ICAC wrote in a statement.
Arif Makhdum, who works with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Pakistan, discussed the Sustainable Agriculture Program currently being implemented in seven regions in Pakistan where 92,350 farmers work on 355,600 hectares of land.
“In Pakistan, cotton in 100 percent irrigated and surface or ground water is estimated to account for 56 percent of the total water footprint,” ICAC said. “The water footprint assessment helped in identifying potential and important cotton production zones and indicating ways to increase water use efficiency, while reducing contaminants in water caused by fertilizer/pesticide applications.”
The programs in Pakistan helped reduce water use by 25 percent, pesticide use by 31 percent and synthetic fertilizer by 27 percent, while profits picked up by 24 percent.
For Danilar Andakulov from Kyrgyzstan, curbing water use in cotton was all about furrows. There are six projects being implemented in India, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan using technology to test different ways to use furrows, which are plowed between crop rows and the water is run there. From using short furrows to irrigating every second furrow, laser leveling furrows and soil humidity measurement, Andakulov said the improved methods of irrigation have contributed to 33 percent less water use and 35 percent better yield—and income per hectare—compared to traditional methods.
“These practical examples showed that the water footprint of cotton can be significantly reduced, while improving the income of farmers,” ICAC said.