By Mauricio Galleguillos, PhD in Agricultural Sciences, academic at the UAI Faculty of Engineering and Sciences and researcher at Data Observatory
in a new World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, agriculture stands out as the sector that consumes the most water in Chile, with more than 70% of consumptive use nationwide, far exceeding other sectors such as mining and industry. This imposes complex challenges to address given its vital importance in the country’s development matrix that requires the sector to guarantee the provision of food, as well as the maintenance of thousands of associated jobs, especially outside urban areas. Climate change has exacerbated drought phenomena at a global level, with the living example of the national mega-drought that has been with us for more than 12 years, severely hitting many basins in central Chile where a large part of agriculture is located. . This situation is pushing us towards a water crisis where the different actors and institutions constituting our basins are under increasing tension.
In this context and given its magnitude of importance in the water balance of the basins, agriculture plays a fundamental role, being able to be classified into two dimensions that have to do with the relevance of the type of agricultural land use chosen and the water efficiency that is can obtain in the respective present agricultural use.
The first point is controversial since it reveals the absence of sustainability criteria for the water balance of a basin, since highly water-demanding crops have been introduced in basins with little natural availability. For example, an avocado crop requires about 10,000 cubic meters of water per hectare per year to be able to produce and they have been located in sectors where there is only less than 2,000 cubic meters of natural availability, generating a structural imbalance in the water balance. Initiatives to establish less water-demanding crops such as pomegranates or other similar species have not seen much fruit, possibly due to poor competitiveness against the successful avocado. A particularly interesting exception is the case of olive trees for oil production, which proliferated successfully a few years ago, but today survive with difficulty in the market context.
Water efficiency is another point of action where great advances have been made due to the modernization of irrigation, although these are not enough today. Indeed, various studies have shown the existence of significant inefficiencies in the application of technology. For example, nominal efficiencies of 85% only reach close to 50% in reality, this implies that of the 10,000 cubic meters required by the plant, 15,000 would be applied as irrigation. This situation occurs due to bad practices in irrigation management, rooted in in the poor maintenance of pressurized systems, as well as in the poor knowledge of the functioning of the root-soil system, even leading to losses in production due to stress due to excess water. In this area, although there is much to advance, there are underlying challenges to achieve it. Precision irrigation techniques using telemetry soil moisture sensors, satellite observations, and artificial intelligence algorithms have long been shown to fill this gap. However, this requires trained personnel that are still scarce in the country and a significant investment in R&D.
Thus, there is an urgent need to consider these aspects to achieve agriculture that is more sustainable and capable of adapting to the challenges imposed by climate change.