Every drop counts: Exploring innovative solutions for Europe’s drought problem

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A third consecutive year of drought shows that water scarcity is an increasingly frequent and widespread phenomenon in the EU, and one which holds enormous implications for the agricultural sector. EURACTIV spoke with Netafim, a specialist irrigation company, about the innovative solutions on offer to cope with this.

In their latest report on the situation in Europe, the European drought observatory (EDO) warned that certain regions of Europe are facing a robust dry spell following poor rainfall during April and May. 

It concluded that central and northwestern countries, including Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland and most of the UK, have been particularly affected, highlighting that the current drought marks the third consecutive year of unexpectedly dry conditions across Europe.

Moreover, according to the August issue of the Joint Research Centre’s crop monitoring in Europe, yield forecasts for almost all summer crops in the EU were revised downwards from the July forecast due to dry conditions, leaving farmers increasingly reliant on irrigation to save their crops.

German farmers fear another summer of drought

With low levels of rain, German farmers fear another summer of drought in addition to the coronavirus pandemic. According to the German Ministry of Agriculture, the situation is under review, but no concrete measures are planned so far. EURACTIV Germany reports.

According to the European Commission, 44% of total water abstraction in Europe is used for agriculture, with southern European countries generally accounting for more than two-thirds of that total. 

Although the burden falls heaviest in hotter climates, all countries are reliant on irrigation to a greater or lesser extent to improve crop productivity and profitability.

However, irrigation is also the source of a number of environmental concerns, such as the excessive depletion of water from subterranean aquifers, irrigation-driven erosion and increased soil salinity.

Water resources protection is therefore high on the agenda of both the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the EU’s Farm to Fork food strategy, which aims to preserve freshwater resources and avoid agricultural water pollution, including nitrate pollution.

EURACTIV spoke with Andre Van Spengen, a technical account manager at Netafim, a company specialising in precision irrigation solutions for sustainable agriculture, about drip irrigation and the role it can play in increasing the efficiency of water use.

“Most of the irrigation systems in the EU still use spray guns and spray booms, which are really the most inefficient way to water crops,” he said, stressing that water is lost both through run off and evaporation. 

To explain the difference between using this technique with drip irrigation methods, he drew the comparison between emptying a five litre bucket on the ground compared to using a syringe. 

“Most of the water hits the ground and runs off, but by using drip irrigation, it penetrates deep into the soil, creating a big bubble below the surface,” he said, adding that the farmer can save up to 30% of water by switching to drip irrigation.

More than half of France at risk of summer drought

Ahead of a summer that promises to be particularly dry and hot in Europe, France’s ecological transition ministry is mobilising water stakeholders to anticipate shortages and avoid supply disruptions. EURACTIV’s partner le Journal de l’environnement reports.

Although drip irrigation systems require an initial investment of time, money and effort, the systems carry considerable benefits over the long run, Van Spengen said.

As well as considerable savings in water, the system also prevents the propagation of disease, especially fungal disease, by keeping plants dry, and also leaf damage caused by the sun, which occurs when they are wet.

Moreover, these irrigation systems can also be used for fertilisation, a process known as “fertigation”.

“Drip irrigation can also distribute crop protection products and fertilisers, meaning a more targeted application and a reduction in the use of these products,” Van Spengen highlighted.

The reduction of pesticide and fertiliser use is high on the agenda of the F2F strategy.

But for Van Spengen, this kind of irrigation system can also offer farmers something invaluable – peace of mind. 

“Conventional spraying systems require a lot of work – both in setting up and supervision,” he said, pointing out that they often operate under as much as 10 bars of pressure, pumping out 80 cubic metres of water an hour, meaning that a leak can have grave consequences.

By contrast, drip irrigation operates under only 1 bar of pressure, meaning that farmers can leave the irrigation running while they do other important tasks. 

“You can walk away and leave your plants without being so worried about something going wrong,” he said, adding that studies have shown that farmers often postpone irrigation for up to a week once the dry spell kicks in while hoping for rain because of the effort that irrigation takes.

“This way, the moment you suspect your plants may need a helping hand, you can get irrigating right away,” Van Spengen said, reducing stress on the crops.

Bad water management makes drought worse, study finds

As Europe is facing a new heatwave this week, drought emergency measures will be back on the table. According to a study EU member states do a lot to worsen the impacts of drought.

A spokesperson for EU farmer’s association COPA-COGECA told EURACTIV that they are aware that “quite a few of our members have made the investment towards this technology and had great results,” and, as in with most new precision farming technologies that allow for a better management of resources, the organisation was “very favourable” towards it.

They added that although it is currently not necessarily applicable for all crops and types of farms, it is “key to enable more farmers which could benefit from it to be able to make such investment on their farms”.

[Edited by Sam Morgan]

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