Chinese scientists recognised for water-saving irrigation technology

Stephen Chen

A new irrigation technology developed by Chinese scientists that can cut farmers' water use by a quarter in arid areas has won an international conservation award.

Tian Fuqiang, an associate professor who heads the research team at Tsinghua University, was recognised for his contribution to the development and mass application of a water and salt regulation technology for mulching and drip irrigation in China's far western region of Xinjiang.

He was presented with the WatSave Technology Award in Bali, Indonesia on September 4. The award from the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage (ICID) is presented to the best new water-saving technology every year.

Gao Lihui, administrative director of the ICID's Chinese National Committee on Irrigation and Drainage in Beijing, said the award was significant recognition of the research team's technological achievement in the area of water conservation.

"They faced fierce competition from the candidates from other countries [in the running for the prize]," Gao said on Tuesday.

"But the bigger challenge now is to promote this technology around the world."

Tian Fuqiang was recognised for his contribution to the development and mass application of a water and salt regulation technology for mulching and drip irrigation. Photo: Thuwater alt=Tian Fuqiang was recognised for his contribution to the development and mass application of a water and salt regulation technology for mulching and drip irrigation. Photo: Thuwater

It was the seventh time Chinese scientists have taken out the award in the past two decades. Australian researchers have won the prize for the last two years.

The Chinese technology has been used to irrigate more than 20,000 hectares (49,400 acres) of cotton farms " a highly water intensive crop " in Xinjiang since 2011. According to the researchers, it has saved more than 500 million tonnes of water on those farms in that time.

It can reduce water use by 25 per cent and increase agricultural output such as cotton by nearly 20 per cent compared to irrigation systems currently used in hot, dry climate zones, according to the ICID.

The technology uses a mathematical model that, according to Tian's team, can simulate and predict the movement of salt and water in different types of soil " something that has not been well understood by scientists before.

In a dry region like Xinjiang, too much or too little water can lead to salinisation " a major threat to agriculture. Salinisation can be caused by the rapid evaporation of too much water, or an insufficient leaching process and poor plant growth brought on by too little water.

Researchers have been trying to get the balance right for decades, but the new technology means farmers can plan their water use with unprecedented ease and accuracy. A cotton grower can calculate how many tonnes of water will be needed for a hectare of the crop, whether they need to water their fields in winter, and how many days to wait between watering.

Xinjiang, with the Gobi Desert in the north and the Taklimakan Desert in the south, is heavily dependent on agriculture, especially cotton " the region provides more than 80 per cent of China's total cotton production. But its dry climate has constrained economic and social development because of water shortages, according to the Chinese government.

Many other regions face similarly harsh conditions, including places involved in Beijing's controversial Belt and Road Initiative. Agriculture is one of the investment targets for the sprawling infrastructure plan that aims to link China with other parts of Asia, Africa, Europe and beyond.

According to the research team, using the new technology to irrigate the more than 70 million hectares of cotton fields in China and Central Asia alone could generate over US$7 billion in extra income for the farmers every year. At the same time, they estimate it could reduce annual water consumption by 17.5 billion tonnes " almost the entire groundwater resources of Afghanistan.

Gao said it also had a cost advantage compared to other technologies. For instance, the Chinese technology uses plastic pipes with thin walls that need to be replaced every year, but are recyclable and inexpensive. Similar technology used in countries such as Israel usually uses pipes with thick walls made from high quality plastic that last for decades, but they require more investment, meaning they might be out of reach for farmers in developing countries.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2019 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.