Collaboration Improves Water Productivity in Egypt  

Sep 07 2022

ICARDA is grateful to the Egyptian Government, the One CGIAR Excellence in Agronomy Initiative, the One CGIAR CWANA Initiative, FAO, the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development (AFESD), and the European Union for funding this research. ICARDA would also like to recognize its partners, the Egyptian Agricultural Research Center (ARC) and the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation (MARL).

By Dr. Vinay Nangia, Research Team Leader – Soil, Water, and Agronomy (SWA), and Dr. Mohie El Din Omar, Research Associate – Irrigation and Water Management. 

With its 55.5 billion cubic meters of annual water allocation, Egypt’s Nile River accounts for 98% of all available freshwater – 86% of which is captured by farmers to irrigate their crops. But a combination of population growth and worsening climate change conditions means that farmers’ water needs exceed what the river can supply. 

ICARDA’s Soil, Water, and Agronomy (SWA) team of researchers supports farmers to transition, technically but also behaviorally, from farming conditions where water is no longer abundant – but increasingly scarce and precious.  

Alongside our partners, ICARDA is working to enhance water productivity and higher ‘crop-per-drop’ efficiency by streamlining and improving irrigation methods, water systems, and technology. 

Precision agriculture is yet to be widely developed in the Global South. But ICARDA is already leveraging advanced digital and geospatial tools, big data analytics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence in its innovative water management approaches in Egypt and across the region. 

Together with Egypt’s Agriculture Research Center (ARC), ICARDA investigates the benefits of thermal imaging technology, which detects water stress in wheat, aba bean, and barley crops. Thermal imaging is highly reliable and helps with irrigation water scheduling – significantly reducing non-beneficial water depletions in newly reclaimed lands. 

To assess a farm’s Water-Energy-Food (WEF) performance,  SWA has developed the Farm WEF Nexus Index to evaluate the quality of a farm’s integrated resources management rather than the performance of each resource separately. This Index helps compare and rank different farms based on their irrigation system, agronomic practices, and energy efficiency. This indicator bases itself on four pillars: water, energy, yield, and C02 emissions. 

Across Egypt, high temperatures result in excessive soil and crop moisture evapotranspiration, leaving soils dry, brittle, and unviable. ICARDA’s SWA team, with financial support from FAOs’ Water Scarcity Initiative and in collaboration with ARC and five Near East and North Africa (NENA) countries, developed the NENA regional network for ET measurements.

The network builds shared understanding and methodology on ET measurements in the field and through remote sensing to deliver accurate data assessments and how to use them for agriculture-related applications such as water accounting, water productivity, and water management. ICARDA manages the technical backstopping and quality control aspects in all six countries – to ensure high scientific standards.  

As part of CGIAR’s Excellence in Agronomy Initiative (EiA), ICARDA also works with key private, public, and research partners in Egypt to improve digital extension advisory to local farmers. The GeoAgro Pro phone app provides packages of best practices selected from field surveys and digital tools to support farmers in increasing crop and water productivity. 

In dry countries such as Egypt, conserving precious water is essential for greater crop yields and improved farmer livelihoods. Since 2013, when ICARDA first introduced its flagship Raised-Bed machine in the East Delta province of Sharqeya, 112,000 farmers have used it across the country to dig furrows and raised beds on their fields in a quick and cost-efficient way.

The MRB mechanized and streamlined an ancient Egyptian practice of digging furrows and beds in the soil for higher water and crop productivity. The SWA Team has further improved this furrow irrigation system by installing low-cost gate pipes on-field – for even water distribution and reduced seepage losses.  

The Nile Delta’s intensive irrigation network consists of four types of irrigation channels: the primary canal runs continuously, branch canals receive water on a rotational basis, and tertiary (mesqa) and quaternary canals (marwa) – which on-farm channels managed by farmers and serve land plots of three to five acres. With the support of the European Union, ICARDA rehabilitated a nine kilometer–long stretch of marwa in Minya and Fayoum to improve its conveyance and water equity among farmers. This project will now be replicated in other governorates. 

In Egypt, a typical marwa is less elevated than the field it is meant to irrigate, and farmers use diesel pumps to lift the water onto their lot.

ICARDA will install solar panels above marwas, which provide shade that will reduce evaporation, keep aquatic weed blooms in check, and makes a cheap and clean energy source for the water pumps available.

We also want to install solar panels directly above crops on-field. The benefits of that system are that shaded crops – less affected by soaring UV rays, will produce better yields, and the energy needed to activate the pumps will be renewable – and cheap. 

In Egypt’s Delta region, ICARDA and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), as part of CGIAR’s F2R-CWANA Initiative, work together on saline landscape management. In the Delta governorates of Kafr-el-Sheikh and Port Said, both badly affected by high salinity rates, crop productivity is lower than expected. As a response, we are identifying soil and water salinity hotspots to test the validity of our leaching method and modified cropping patterns. Leaching is the primary method of controlling soil salinity by applying large amounts of water to flush away the excess salts from the root zone. 

Another identified technique to get rid of salt and improve crops and water productivity is to change the microtopography of farmlands by installing an internal network of canals and drains inside the field. In Egypt, a typical farm lifts its water from an external canal on one side of the field. After irrigation, the water seeps into the soil and ends in an external drain on the other side of the field. However, this system cannot efficiently remove the salt since most of the infiltrated water remains in the upstream area of the field.  

With our system, the water from the external canal is carried onto the field by a series of internal canals, surrounded on both sides by internal drains, before being discharged into the main external drain. This approach shows great promise to effectively leach salt-ridden farms, especially since the osmotic pressure forces the water towards the areas where soil salinity is at its highest.   

Large areas of land can be reclaimed through solar-powered irrigation innovations. ICARDA’s land-use priorities align with Egypt’s strategic vision to expand innovative and cutting-edge irrigation systems across the territory. ICARDA plans to replicate its ultra-low solar-powered drip irrigation system that has been successfully scaled out in Morocco and the Arabian Peninsula in Egypt’s Western Desert.

ICARDA’s system uses drippers with much lower activation pressure than standard commercial irrigation equipment, significantly reducing energy costs and water use. 

Lastly, in the water-deprived governorate of Matrouh on Egypt’s North Coast, ICARDA is researching small-scale greywater treatment and reuse for irrigation to alleviate water shortages. Greywater refers to the wastewater generated by household water, excluding toilet water. ICARDA’s small-scale greywater filtration system enables household greywater to be filtered and reused to grow olive trees and other crops in small fields within people’s home environments.  

Capacity building for improved irrigation and farming

To bring together fragmented parcels of land into one large farm and foster improved agricultural practices in Egypt, ICARDA prioritizes capacity building for farmers. Farmer field days demonstrate ICARDA’s improved crop varieties and better farming practices.

ICARDA also designs training modules for various stakeholders (extension officers, farmers, etc.) to increase their knowledge of new farming technologies and methods. In addition, training videos and other materials are shared with farmers from cooperatives and water users’ associations to train them in modern farming practices that will improve profits and reduce water use.

In parallel, ICARDA ensures the skills of tomorrow’s experts are up to date by enrolling trainers, researchers, postgraduate students, advisors, technicians, young entrepreneurs, and champion farmers in continuous capacity-building programs. 

Source: ICARDA