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Productive use of water in agriculture - a key strategic area for the WRC

November 2014

GERHARD R. BACKEBERG, executive manager: Water Utilisation in Agriculture, Water Research Commission (WRC)


The tactical focus in this key strategic area is on increasing the efficiency and productivity of water use for the production of food, forage, fibre, and fuel crops; improving food security; reducing poverty and increasing the wealth of people dependent on water-based agriculture; and ensuring sustainable water resource use.

The needs and requirements of present and future generations of subsistence, emergent and commercial producers are addressed through creation and application of water-efficient production technologies, models and information systems within the following interrelated sub-sectors of agriculture, namely:

  • Irrigated agriculture
  • Rain-fed agriculture
  • Woodlands and forestry
  • Grasslands and livestock watering
  • Aquaculture and fisheries

The challenge for applied research is contributing to finding sustainable solutions for water use in agriculture, with priority given to innovative new products which support economic development and inform decision-making for private business and public policies.

In the process of undertaking these research projects, the composition of research teams endeavours to broaden the representation of black and female researchers. Post-graduate students are trained to improve the expertise of human capital, with research empowering individuals and groups in rural communities.

Objectives of research programmes

The primary objective is to increase national and household food security and to improve the livelihoods of people on a farming, community and regional level through efficient and sustainable utilisation and development of water resources in agriculture.

The secondary objectives are to:

  • Increase biological, technical and economic efficiency and productivity of water use.
  • Reduce poverty through water-based agricultural activities.
  • Increase profitability of water-based farming systems.
  • Ensure sustainable water resource use through protection, restoration and reclamation practices.

Portfolios of current projects have been grouped into strategic thrusts and programmes which directly address the abovementioned objectives and are summarised as follows:

Research thrusts and programmes

Thrust 1: Water utilisation for food, forage and fibre production
Scope: The direction and driving force for research activities and outputs are determined by the strategic focus to improve the knowledge of the processes of production of field, horticultural and industrial crops.

Water productivity can be increased by producing more with the same use of water or by producing the same with less use of water. This requires understanding of water dynamics in the soil-water-plant-atmosphere continuum; the equipment which is used and the method of production which is followed. Research on all these aspects can contribute to higher water use efficiency in agriculture.

Various processes and factors, which are site-specific, have an influence on the quality of water for crop, livestock and fish production. Significant shortcomings exist in the assessment of the fitness-for-use of water sources and identifying water-related production problems.

The emphasis in this programme is on the efficient use of water and management of water quality for irrigation of crops, livestock watering, aquaculture and inland fisheries in rivers, ponds and dams.

This thrust includes two programmes:

  • Water-efficient production methods in relation to soils, crops and technology in rain-fed and irrigated agriculture.
  • Fitness-for-use of water for crop production, livestock watering and aquaculture.

Thrust 2: Water utilisation for fuel wood and timber production
Scope: The direction and driving force for research activities and outputs are determined by the strategic focus to improve the knowledge of the processes of production of trees in woodlands, plantation forestry and trees planted in combination with food and forage crops.

In catchment areas where trees are a prominent feature of land use, runoff and deep percolation of water can be reduced. Management of these so-called stream-flow reduction activities necessitates an understanding of the water use by trees and the competitive or complementary relationship of water use by trees and water use by staple food and forage crops. Due to research specialisation, separate attention is given in this programme to increase the efficiency of water use by trees in woodlands and plantations for fuel wood and timber production.

This thrust includes one programme:

  • Water-efficient production methods and systems in agro-forestry, woodlands and forestry plantations.

Thrust 3: Water utilisation for poverty reduction and wealth creation in agriculture
Scope: The direction and driving force for research activities and outputs are determined by the strategic focus to improve the knowledge of the management processes undertaken by people who are using water.

Poverty, hunger and malnutrition among rural people are widely recognised as major problems. These members of rural communities, consisting mainly of women, children and the elderly, are also disadvantaged or marginalised for various social, economic and political reasons. A wide-ranging programme is required to support the sustainable development of rangeland livestock, rain-fed and irrigated crop production.

Efficient use of water through a combination of agricultural activities can contribute to improve living conditions. Empowerment of rural people can be promoted further through participatory action research which improves knowledge, farming skills and leadership capabilities.

Commercial farming is a major user of water resources and faces a particular challenge to ensure that this share of water is used effectively and efficiently. There is invariably a close link between efficient use and allocation of water and whole-farming profitability. Water management on farms is also time-dependent and based on an incomplete knowledge of changes in the weather, prices and technology. Under these circumstances, modelling is a powerful tool to provide decision-support and management advice.

The focus in this programme is therefore on developing procedures, methods and models to provide advice to producers on best management practices and the optimal combination of crop and livestock enterprises within the constraints of water, land and capital resources.

This thrust includes two programmes:

  • Sustainable water-based agricultural activities in rural communities.
  • Integrated water management for profitable farming systems.

Thrust 4: Water resource protection, restoration and reclamation in agriculture
Scope: The direction and driving force for research activities and outputs are determined by the strategic focus to improve the knowledge of the natural processes and people-induced impacts of resource use.

With cultivation and irrigation, larger quantities of salts present in the soil and lower strata could be mobilised. Increasing salinity levels and higher water tables threaten the sustainable use of soil and water. Knowledge and tools to manage the quantity and quality of water resources for agricultural production are therefore required. The focus of research is on developing methods and models to manage water distribution and prevent water resource degradation.

Agricultural decisions to use land and to conserve rainfall or to abstract water from rivers, dams and boreholes, has wide-ranging impacts on the natural environment. Intensification of crop and livestock production processes can potentially contribute to higher levels of chemical residues of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides in surface and groundwater. Precautions must be taken as part of the agricultural production process to protect the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. This requires an understanding of the negative impacts of agriculture and guidelines for an assessment and mitigation of those impacts.

This thrust includes two programmes:

  • Sustainable water resource use on irrigation schemes and within river catchments.
  • Impact assessment and environmental management of agricultural production.

Research portfolio for 2014/2015 and 2015/2016

In this key strategic area, a holistic systems approach is followed for knowledge creation and dissemination to enable people to utilise water in a sustainable way for food production and improved livelihoods. Research projects are managed within the innovation cycle to ensure that scientific research is applicable and socially beneficial. Key issues being addressed are the productivity of water use for crops and livestock, poverty reduction and wealth creation in rural areas and prevention of resource degradation.

These efforts are aligned to the Vision for 2030 of the National Development Plan; the outputs for Outcomes 7 and 10 in the programme of action announced by the presidency; core water strategies of the NWRS-2; measures in the framework for the New Growth Path; the Green Paper on National Strategic Planning; the DWA framework on Water for Growth and Development; the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries’ Integrated Growth and Development Plan; the National Agricultural Research and Development Strategy; and the Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Programme of the New Partnership of Africa’s Development (NEPAD).

Reports by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO [2013]) and Save the Children (2013), emphasise that food production is essential to achieve better nutrition and the importance of nutrition in early childhood development. Work will continue to fill knowledge gaps that exist in the utilisation of water in agriculture, under the following key activities of the research portfolio:

  • Increasing the productivity of rainwater and irrigation water for crop and livestock production.
  • Uplifting rural economies through commercial food production and reducing income inequalities.
  • Quantifying the water footprint in food value chains.
  • Eradicating hunger and reducing poverty.
  • Improving food security, nutrition and health.
  • Generating alternative sources of renewable energy.
  • Preventing soil and water degradation and pollution.
  • Adapting farming systems to climate change.

This key strategic area strives to achieve a balance between projects in irrigated and rain fed agriculture, agro-forestry and aquaculture, to promote producer involvement in poor rural communities through participatory action research, and to take research projects further toward the practical application of results with technology transfer activities. The baseline of completed projects and stakeholder requirements indicate the direction and priorities for future research.

Emphasis will therefore be placed on:

  • Determining the water footprint of selected food, forage, fibre and fuel crops.
  • Measurement and modelling of deciduous fruit tree orchard water use.
  • Revision of the 1996 water quality guidelines for agricultural water use.
  • Rehabilitation of grasslands and livestock water use productivity after eradication of invasive trees.
  • Water use of agro-forestry systems for food, forage or fuel production.
  • Evaluation of the water use and nutritional productivity of food crops in the diet of the rural poor.
  • Contribution of inland freshwater fisheries to rural livelihoods.
  • Wide-scale modelling of irrigation water use and water availability with earth observation/satellite imagery.
  • Up-scaling of rainwater harvesting and conservation (RWH & C) to croplands and rangelands for food production and renewable fuel generation.
  • Modelling of irrigation farming profitability with curtailment of authorised water use.
  • Assessment of the impact of erosion on sedimentation of water resources.
  • Modelling crop water use and determining the impact of climate change on selected catchments.
  • Seamless near-forecasting of rainfall for effective agricultural water management.
  • Non-point source (NPS) pollution from field to catchment scale and salinisation management with precision farming.


Publication of research reports

All completed research reports are published on an annual basis. The availability of research reports is publicised in the magazine Water Wheel as well as the WRC’s Knowledge Review. These publications as well as research reports can be ordered from the Water Research Commission at the address orders@wrc.org.zaor downloaded from www.wrc.org.za.

The most recently published research report is on Water use efficiency of selected irrigated crops determined with satellite imagery by Caren Jarmain from the University of KwaZulu Natal, as leadauthor (WRC Report number TT 602/14, July 2014), which can beaccessed under the knowledge hub on the website.

This report contains detailed information on water use as well as water use efficiency of maize production in irrigation areas along the Orange River at Douglas: GWK participated in the project as a commercial partner.

Publication: November 2014

Section: Focus on