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Building a Water Economical Agriculture

China's history can be traced back to the origins of irrigation. For thousands of years, the Chinese flooded their land to grow crops, but the flow has now reduced to a trickle -- or a drip.

In Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, cotton fields stretch to the horizon. Among them are Guo Ying's 110 mu (7.3 hectares). Surprisingly, aqueducts and water pipelines are not to be found in her fields.

Guo said she used drip irrigation under plastic film technology. When water is needed, she turns on a control switch, and water drops permeate into the roots of crops slowly.

Guo's fields have been equipped with this technology for four years. "It helps me save a lot of water and manpower." She said 100 cubic meters of water can be saved for each mu on average, about one third of the previous irrigation volume.

Guo works with Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps. Head of the water-saving irrigation office of the Corps Hu Weidong said the drip irrigation technology has been widely extended since year 2000. Now more than six million mu of farmland are equipped with this technology, saving more than 600 million cubic meters of water a year.

Envisioning a resource-saving society

Xinjiang's innovations are an example for the rest of the country as water becomes a more precious resource. According to the Ministry of Water Resources (MWR), with six percent of the world's total fresh water resources, China ranks sixth in the world after Brazil, Russia, Canada, the United States and Indonesia.

Per capita, however, its water resources are only a quarter of the world's average, ranking 121st in 153 countries.

China's farms account for more than two thirds of the country's total water consumption volume, mostly for irrigation. However, 55 percent of total irrigation water is wasted, almost twice that of some developed countries.

If China can reach the standards of developed countries, 60 to 80 billion cubic meters of water -- 12 to 16 percent of the total agricultural water consumption -- can be saved per year.

The Chinese government envisions a resource-saving society. Sustainable development has been widely recognized and this kind of development needs a resource-saving and environment-friendly society, which has been set as a goal in the government's 11th five-year plan.

Water saving, especially in agriculture, is on the agenda of the national leaders. Premier Wen Jiabao referred to it last year as one of the key measures to build a resource-saving society.

Technology can help build it. Since the early 1990s, some advanced water-saving irrigation technologies, such as Guo Ying's drip irrigation, and micro and sprinkling irrigation were introduced into China from Israel and other developed countries. Figures from the MWR show 320 million mu are now irrigated with water-saving technologies.

Dilemma between state and farmers

However, the traditional water-wasting irrigation method is still used in most areas of China. For instance, on the Chengdu Plain in the southwestern Sichuan Province, farmers still flood their farmland with the water from Dujiangyan Irrigation Works built more than 2,250 years ago.

Farmland with new irrigation technology still accounts for only 35 percent of the total. In some developed countries, such as Israel, four fifths of farmland has been equipped with water-saving technologies.

"The technology we have now won't be outdated for 10 to 15 years," said Yan Guanyu, an official with the department of irrigation, drainage and rural water supply under the MWR. "However, it's not easy to extend its use because farmers are reluctant to use them."

Yan, head of the department's division of irrigation and water saving, says new technologies cost a lot more than most farmers can afford.

At present, drip and micro-sprinkling irrigation are the most efficient technologies. However, they can cost farmers 2,000 yuan (250 U.S. dollars) per mu to install, while the rural per capita net income was just 3,255 yuan in 2005.

"Who will pay the bill?" asked Zheng Cifen, a farmer of Jiubei Village in Longkou City of East China's Shandong Province. She has more than two mu of corn, and says all the farmers in her village use flood irrigation. She has learnt about new irrigation methods from the television, but the have never reached her village.

"It is said that it costs a lot. I earn less than 3,000 yuan from grain every year. If I buy new technologies, I can't earn money from farming," she says. "Technology is expensive, but water is quite cheap."

"If the money they save in water cannot cover their investment, they will not be interested," says Yan.

But the government thinks differently. "The significance of agricultural water saving is necessary to solve the problems facing agriculture, rural areas and farmers," said Feng Guangzhi, president of China Irrigation Districts' Association.

"Water saving can bring economic, social and ecological benefits," said Yan. "The water saved can be provided for households, and industrial use. It also can be used for expanding irrigation areas so as to increase grain yields and ensure food security."

He also noted that water saving can increase the amount of water in downstream watercourses, which helps preserve the ecological environment in desert areas, and therefore, help to achieve sustainable development.

However, the dilemma appears between the state and farmers. "Farmers' small account books are incompatible with the state's big plans," says Zhao Jingcheng, former chief engineer of the China National Center for Irrigation and Drainage Development. "But water saving is a strategic policy and in the public good, so the state should pay the bill for it."

Government should invest more

Usually, the central government allocates funds in accordance with its five-year plans, and each plan is drafted according to the situation of the previous five years. Situations vary and so do the sums allocated.

"The absence of a fixed channel for state investment is the major bottleneck for the further extension of water-saving technologies," says Yan. "A constant and stable government fund is needed."

Zhao says, "We should make specific laws and regulations about water saving." Existing laws and regulations fail to fully address issues of water waste and the powers and responsibilities of government departments.

"The government should increase its input in infrastructure building," Yan says, adding that irrigation works waste large amounts of water.

Some works were built decades ago with low standards when little attention was paid to water efficiency. In the process of transportation, a lot of water is evaporates or spills, leading to a huge waste.

Problems remain, but achievements have been made too. Feng Guangzhi said that since the mid 1990s, China has enjoyed higher grain yields using less water. He attributed this achievement to agricultural water saving.

Although it's far from enough, the central government's annual two billion yuan investment in water efficiency helps the country increase water saving capacity by one billion cubic meters a year. The share of agricultural water in the total water consumption volume has decreased from 88 percent in 1988 to 66 percent at present.

"We are now trying to find solutions to the problems," Yan said. With the government's determination, more people may follow in Guo Ying's steps, and more fields with new technologies, too.

(Xinhua News Agency November 13, 2006)

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