WaterFARMING: Improvement of water and nutrient retention and use efficiency in arable farming systems from field to catchment scale in Europe and North Africa

The sustainable management of water resources is one of the greatest global challenges, particularly in agriculture which consumes about 70% of the planet’s accessible fresh water. Concerns about depletion of water bodies and the necessity for water resource protection, has led to transnational and national resolutions such as the Water Framework Directive (WFD) in Europe and the Water Code in Tunisia to ensure the sustainable use of water resources. Economic activities and domestic uses require water in sufficient quantity and quality to meet the demand of competing sectors. In the EU, ~50% of the water resources do not meet WFD targets due to pollution from agriculture and industry and increasing demand on declining water resources. Agriculture accounts for 25-80% of total water use in the EU and North (N.) Africa and huge regional differences exist in the extent and gravity of water related challenges in agriculture. Problems of low and fluctuating water supply are most serious in South Europe and N. Africa where climate change is predicted to result in 30% reductions and increased uncertainty in rainfall by 2050. Overexploitation of ground water for irrigation has caused salinization leading to soil degradation and loss of fertility, particularly in N. Africa, while extreme rain events have resulted in severe erosion, landslides and flooding. Excessive and inappropriate timing of fertilizers and manure application in agriculture are causing considerable nutrient flows into the ground water or in the surrounding water bodies, thus affecting water quality. The magnitude, diversity and complexity of water and soil issues calls for a coordinated and versatile strategy, as proposed by WaterFARMING, to retain the available water at source and optimize water and nutrient use across agricultural sectors and regions in Europe and N. Africa.

WaterFARMING is one of the first to develop a common set of tools to quantify water and nutrient use efficiency from field to catchment scales across a wide variety of production systems taking environmental, social and economic indicators of sustainability into account. The objective of WaterFARMING is to enhance the ecosystem water and nutrient retention and improve use efficiency in diverse arable production systems across Europe and N. Africa from mesic to xeric conditions. WaterFARMING is an innovative transdisciplinary team that strategically combines academic expertise (agronomy, ecophysiology, crop science, and climate and hydrological modelling), advisory services and farmers’ groups in a diverse network of production systems. This network covers a wide range of catchments (e.g., the Mira Irrigation System, Portugal, the Selke catchment, Germany, the Nile valley, Egypt and the Grombalia aquifer, Tunisia), that represent a gradient of increasing water limitation and supply uncertainty from North Europe-South Europe to N. Africa. The consortium has access to large long-term datasets for the different catchments (Germany) and productions systems. Field-to-catchment scale assessments of water and nutrient budgets and use efficiency will be done using a combination of crop models (DAISY, WOFOST) and Kaya-Porter Identity and hydrological water quality models (HYPE). Based on the water and nutrient use efficiency gaps identified, innovative production systems will be designed according to the concept of ‘green infrastructures’ defined as ‘harvesting the potential of soils and vegetation and their interactions’ to mitigate the loss of soil and water at source and to enhance the use efficiency of available resources with multiple economic, social and environmental benefits (reduced erosion, enhanced water storage, carbon sequestration and habitat protection, reduced flood risk and biodiversity). Innovative production systems will be based on ameliorated cropping sequences, crop mixtures and input management to enhance water retention and soil fertility from field, farm and catchment scale. The expected impacts are ways to mitigate farm nutrient and water losses, reduce economical costs to farmers and address contamination of water bodies’ downstream. Farmers’ involvement in the project is crucial for successful adoption and dissemination of innovative production systems. On-farm trials will therefore be used as a dissemination platform. Tools and protocols developed in the project will be packaged as an online decision support tool available for use by all relevant stakeholders. Policy briefs will be prepared as inputs to the different framework directives on water, fertilizer and CAP policies. The project will demonstrate how combination of site and context-specific management, underpinned by favourable agricultural policies and participative approaches, can enhance soil and water use productivity.

Key publication

  • Chukalla, A. D., Reidsma, P., Van Vliet, M. T. H., Silva, J. V., van Ittersum, M. K., Jomaa, S., Rode, M., Merbach, I. and van Oel, P. R. (2020). Balancing indicators for sustainable intensification of crop production at field and river basin levels, Science of the total environment.