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A Systematic And Quantitative Approach To Improve Water Use Efficiency In Agriculture

Theodore C. Hsiao, P. Steduto, E. Fereres
Published 2007 · Geology

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As the competition for the finite water resources on earth increases due to growth in population and affluence, agriculture is faced with intensifying pressure to improve the efficiency of water used for food production. The causes for the relatively low water use efficiency in agriculture are numerous and complex, including environmental, biological, engineering, management, social, and economic facets. The complexity of the problem, with its myriads of local variations, requires a comprehensive conceptual framework of the underlying physical and biological processes as the basis to analyze the existing situation and quantify the efficiencies, and to plan and execute improvements. This paper proposes such a framework, based on the simple fact that the overall efficiency of any process consisting of a chain of sequential step is the product of the efficiency (i.e., output/input ratio) of its individual component steps. In most cases of water use, a number of process chains, both branching and merging, are involved. Means to integrate the diverging and converging chains are developed and presented as equations. Upscaling from fields to regions and beyond are discussed. This chain of efficiencies approach is general and can be applied to any process composed of chains of sequential steps. Here the framework is used to analyze the systems of irrigated and dryland crop production, and animal production on rangeland. Range of plausible efficiencies of each step is presented as tables, with values separately for the poor and for the good situation of circumstances, management and technology. Causes of the differences in efficiency of each step, going from water delivery to soil water extraction, transpiration, photosynthesis, and conversion to crop biomass and yield, and to animal product are briefly discussed. Sample calculations are made to demonstrate how modest differences in the efficiencies of the component steps are manifested as large to huge differences in the overall efficiency. Based on an equation quantifying the impact of changes in efficiency of component steps on the overall efficiency, it is concluded that generally, it is more effective to made modest improvements in several or more steps than to concentrate efforts to improve one or two steps. Hence, improvement efforts should be systematic and not overly concentrated on one or two components. The potential use of the same equation as the point of departure to optimize the allocation of economic resource among the component steps to maximize the improvement in the overall water use efficiency is elaborated on. The chain of efficiencies framework provides the means to examine the current levels of efficiency along the pathways of agricultural water use, to analyze where inefficiencies lie by comparing with the range of known efficiency values in the tables presented, to assess the potential improvements that may be achieved in various parts and their impact on the overall efficiency, and to aid in the optimal allocation of resources for improvements.
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