New rice method could save water - and lives

Posted: 7 November 2007

The latest UNEP report on the state of the planet found that crop production has improved over the past 20 years, but it has not kept up with population. In fact world cereal production per person peaked in the 1980s, and has since slowly decreased. In these circumstances, the reported success of a method of growing rice that could save hundreds of billions of cubic metres of water and increase food security, is welcome news.

Focusing on India - a country which faces a major water crisis, yet has the world's largest area under rice cultivation and a rapidly growing population - WWF reports that the 'rice intensification' method (SRI) has helped increase yields by over 30 per cent - four to five tonnes per hectare instead of three tonnes per hectare - while using 40 per cent less water than conventional methods.

System of rice intensification: Planting
System of rice intensification: Planting
System of rice intensification: Planting. Photo © WWF
In addition, this method will reduce significant amounts of methane emissions, since SRI fields do not emit methane as is the case withconventional methods.

The method is based on eight principles which are different to conventional rice cultivation. They include developing nutrient-rich and un-flooded nurseries instead of flooded ones; ensuring wider spacing between the seedlings; preferring composts or farmyard manure to synthetic fertilizers; and managing water carefully to avoid saturating the plants' roots.

The method was initially developed in the 1980s in Madagascar and has been demonstrated to be effective in 28 countries.

Water crisis

Rice roots compared
Rice roots compared
Comparing roots: on the left, a plant used for the new system of rice intensification, with longer roots using less nutrients. Photo © O. P. Rupela
"Although the system of rice intensification has shown its advantages, it is not widely practised" said Dr Biksham Gujja, Senior Policy Adviser at WWF International. "It is time to start large-scale programmes to support a method that could make a lasting global impact with far-reaching benefits to people and nature." However, caution was urged as SRI is not the answer to the agriculture-water crisis, as in each case the appropriateness and suitability of SRI will depend on the particular biophysical conditions of the site, as well as the objectives of individual farmers. SRI produces more rice for less water, but requires more work from the individual farmer to do more weeding and more coordination amongst neighbouring farmers for water management.

Demand for water-intensive crops such as rice is expected to increase (globally) by 38 per cent by 2040, deepening the water crisis during thesame time. However, less than 6 per cent of rice is traded internationally and savings in water have potential for mitigating domestic water conflicts, especially in poor, rural areas where water is scarce. This is especially the case where water saved is returned to rivers or aquifers for conservation benefits.

The WWF report suggests that major rice-producing countries such as India, China and Indonesia should convert at least 25 per cent of their current rice cultivation to the new system by 2025. This would not only massively reduce the use of water but also help ensure food security.

Indian model

For example, if the SRI method was applied in 20 million hectares of land under rice cultivation in India, the country could meet its food grain objectives of 220 million tonnes of grain by 2012 instead of 2050.

Authorities in the Indian state of Tripura, in North East India, have already committed to move in that direction.

Rice field with farmer
Rice field with farmer
Rice field with farmer. Photo © Bharat Bhushan
"Our farmers proved that the system of rice intensification improves productivity and we will convert at least 40 per cent of our rice cultivation using this method over the next five years," said Manik Sarkar, Chief Minister of Tripura State. "We urge this as a model for rice cultivation elsewhere as it represents one hope for the water crisis affecting so many billions of people."

Already 1.2 billion people have no access to adequate water for drinking and hygiene. WWF is focusing on sustainable agriculture efforts for cotton, sugar and rice, some of the most water-consuming crops for which alternative techniques can result in a strong yield and water savings.

The report More Rice with Less Water was released last month (October 2007)at a conference held in Tripura. To download the report, go here.

Background note: Rice is the main source of directly consumed calories for about half the world's population and 90 per cent of it is produced and consumed in Asia. Contrary to popular belief, rice is not an aquatic plant and the main reason it is submerged in water is for controlling weeds. Conventional methods of rice cultivation use 60-70 kilos of seeds per hectare, SRI requires just five kilos per hectare.