Hope for a water-scarce future

30 September 2014 - By: Caroline Wood

Hope for a water-scarce future 

Farmers on their way to feed their camels in the lower reaches of the Shiyang Rivervalley
Farmers on their way to feed their camels in the lower reaches of the Shiyang Rivervalley in NW China


By Caroline Wood

A pioneering project in North West China is investigating ways to increase agricultural productivity while restricting water use in irrigation. Water scarcity is already a severe problem in many parts of the world, adding to the challenge of producing more food for increasing numbers of people. Practical integrated methods trialled in the north-west Chinese province of Gansu (one of the driest regions of the country) offer novel approaches which could be used elsewhere in the world.


This work is part of a ‘111 project’ funded by the Ministry of Education and the Bureau of Foreign Experts Administration in China, and is a collaborative project between the China Agricultural University and research teams from a number of institutions from around the world. The project follows on from ground-breaking work in water saving agriculture in the region, led by Professor Kang Shaozhong and colleagues from the Centre for Agricultural Water Research at CAU. “This is an interdisciplinary project involving geneticists, agronomists, hydrologists and soil experts” says Bill Davies, a Professor at Lancaster University, which is a partner in the 111 Project (Improving water use efficiency in agriculture from molecular level to regional scales). “This is a really good opportunity to see if we can use our combined expertise in water science to address a very real problem that we increasingly face in many parts of world”.

“One of the problems”, explains Professor Davies, “is that the farmers in the area typically grow wheat and maize, which consume large amounts of water and fertiliser. This has traditionally been a very productive agricultural area but farmers have used too much water. As a result, the water table has fallen significantly causing massive environmental problems and making farming difficult”. Kang and colleagues have developed a well-equipped research station in the region and have been encouraging farmers to reduce their production of traditional crops. “Previously, the farmers would plant fifty mu (a unit of area equivalent to 1/15 of a hectare) of wheat but now they only plant twenty mu”, Professor Kang explains. To maintain the famers’ income, the researchers have helped them to diversify by growing highvalue fruit and vegetable crops, including grapevines, tomatoes, cucumber and hot pepper. “Growing these crops under plastic tunnels is a very efficient way of saving water” Professor Kang adds. To halt the encroaching desert, farmers have also been planting desert shrubs around the edges of their land; this reduces soil erosion and dust storms.
Upper reaches of the Shiyang River Valley
Upper reaches of the Shiyang River Valley


Another approach has been the extensive use of deficit irrigation applied by using drip irrigation systems under plastic mulch. Techniques used over an area of approximately 120,000ha in the Wuwei district alone have achieved a water saving with maize of 50% with negligible yield reduction ; with apple and wine grape, the water saving is 10-18% and 35-40%, respectively, with no yield reduction for both crops. Farmers are encouraged to use deficit irrigation techniques by the CAU team who run demonstration farms and training courses, while distributing printed booklets to explain the reasoning behind the application of the techniques. Professor Davies says. “Here scientists are working with thousands of farmers to get them to a point where they understand what water-saving practices they need to adopt to improve the quality of their lives”. As the 111 Project goes forward teams from Australia, Israel, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States will contribute their expertise. The focus of the work by CAU provides an excellent opportunity to address an issue, the global significance of which grows by the day. Recent results from the region suggest that massive progress has been made towards restoration of the environment.

Manipulations such as shutting wells, returning farmlands to forests and grasses, selecting improved genotypes, promoting water-saving irrigation techniques and reducing areas of irrigation can be effective in addressing some of the major challenges in water resource management. “There’s nothing particularly high-tech here” concludes Professor Davies “but importantly, these ideas can be applied now . Genetics is playing its part but developing new crop varieties takes a long time”. In a world where many regions already face water shortage, the lessons learnt in Gansu could prove critical. A Lancaster University Masters student Jin Hangqi, has made a short film about the challenges faced by farmers in Gansu and the approaches adopted by scientists and farmers working together.

Watch this film at:



English version: 

Category: Plant Biology
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Caroline Wood

Caroline Wood was the SEB’s 2014 science communication intern. Since then, Caroline has been a regular contributor the SEB, reporting on events and writing insightful features for our members.
Caroline has an undergraduate degree from Durham University in Cell Biology and is currently a PHD student at Sheffield University studying parasitic Striga weeds that infect food crops. You can read her blog here.