Beyond Irrigation: The Importance of Soil and Water Management for Sustainable Agriculture
This post was written by Axel Schmidt on behalf of the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) Global Land Restoration Initiative Team.
In “Managing and Safeguarding Water in Agriculture,” Mr. Daniel Bailey shares that irrigation can have transformational impacts for farmers. However, it is necessary to underscore the importance of the foundation on which successful and sustainable irrigation systems are built — soil and water management.
Bailey correctly emphasizes the importance of soil and water management, spotlighting a crucial aspect of agricultural development. Nevertheless, it is imperative to note that these practices are not only vital for farmers relying exclusively on rainfall without access to irrigation, but also fundamental to ensuring the long-term sustainability and effectiveness of irrigation systems. To replenish aquifers, we need to maximize rainfall capture and infiltration. Thus, good soil and water management are required at both the farm and the landscape levels.
CRS projects around the globe provide evidence that key soil and water management practices, such as keeping the soil covered, incorporating cover crops, stopping erosion and protecting water catchments, have a profound impact on soil moisture, drought-hardiness and overall crop yields. At the landscape level, erosion control and other catchment protection measures help to maximize rainwater infiltration and support ground and surface water replenishment.
In Central America, the implementation of Water Smart Agriculture (WSA) practices is particularly noteworthy, as the above practices lock in soil moisture, making crops more resilient to droughts.
Research (see pages 17-49) indicates that during the annual dry period, known as the “canicula,” which occurs in July/August during the maize growing season, WSA practices can result in up to 26% more soil moisture. This increase in moisture translates to higher crop yields and improved food production. WSA maize yields were found to be, on average, 41% higher compared to traditional practices, and bean yields increased by an average of 37%.
WSA practices have the potential to address broader issues, beyond the immediate benefits of increased crop yields, such as food security and the need for external aid. Projections based on data from the 2018 drought suggest that at least 33% more farmers could meet their basic maize production needs in a severe drought year if they were to adopt WSA practices.
Another compelling example of the power of community-led water and soil management practices comes from Malawi. The Lingoni watershed, once plagued by water scarcity and drought impacts, underwent a remarkable transformation under the USAID/CRS Wellness and Agriculture for Life Advancement (WALA) Activity.
Initially faced by water shortages and competition for resources, the Lingoni community mobilized to restore the watershed with basic infrastructure, such as check dams, gully plugs and infiltration pits, while also applying improved soil and water management practices on their farms. Within two years, the community saw a significant improvement — their stream’s flow rate tripled and wells no longer dried up. Two streams, previously seasonal, began to flow year-round. A University of Illinois study in 2016 found that maize yields of farmers inside the community-managed watersheds increased by 61% over farmers in similar fields outside these watersheds.
Over time, improvements in water availability allowed the community to expand its irrigation systems from 10 hectares (ha) up to 30 ha, which increased prosperity, food security and resilience to climate shocks. The story of the Lingoni community attracted the attention of Malawi’s government. In 2022, the government negotiated with Lingoni to use their restored stream to irrigate a neighboring community as well. Their success highlights the importance of community- and landscape-level interventions in sustaining and expanding successful soil and water management.
While irrigation is a powerful tool for modern farmers, its success is intrinsically linked with effective soil and water management. Forging a path to a resilient and prosperous agricultural future means recognizing the synergy between soil and water management and irrigation, fostering sustainable practices and supporting communities in being stewards of their natural resources.