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Cloud-based, micro-irrigation pilot cuts water usage in India

New Delhi : An innovative cloud-based, micro-irrigation system developed by a Scotland-based university and tested on a farm in India has brought about 80 per cent cut in water usage.

At the same time, the system has managed to double crop yield at the farm. If it proves to be equally successful at a large scale, the system could help relieve the environmental stress that agriculture places on India’s natural resources, most notably water.

The system was developed by scientists at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and combined a highly localised weather forecast with local know-how on irrigation needs and soil conditions. It has been trialled as part of the Innovate UK-funded Smart Control of Rural Renewable Energy and Storage (SCORRES) project.

Reducing water consumption and improving irrigation techniques in India is vital: currently, 600 million people are at high risk of surface water supply disruption.

Agriculture accounts for 90 per cent of India’s freshwater withdrawal, 18 per cent of total electricity and 15 per cent of total diesel use. As much as 54 per cent of India faces extremely high water stress and farmers are increasingly indebted due to the volatility of crop yields and prices.

At the trial farm in Tamil Nadu, eight vegetable crops have been farmed using the SCORRES precision irrigation system: lady’s fingers, lettuce, basil, basella, pumpkin, corn, rocket and long beans.

Local farmers’ knowledge on irrigation and soil conditions for each of these crops are scheduled onto the cloud-based system.

SCORRES refines the irrigation schedule by using its highly accurate local weather forecast, soil moisture conditions, evaporation modelling and grid outage information to continually adapt the schedule and ensure the crops receive exactly the right volume of water, at the exact time that they need it.

Heriot-Watt University’s Energy Academy Director and leader of the SCORRES project Professor Eddie Owens said: “We tested eight crops with our precision irrigation system, and had control beds that were manually irrigated. The results of our initial trials were extremely encouraging."

“Our irrigation system reduced water and energy use by up to 80 per cent, and in some of the trials the crop yield doubled, enabling farmers to grow bigger vegetables and fruits, faster. These results are extremely encouraging and have the potential to create a more resource efficient and sustainable future for the global agricultural sector. A next step will be to expand our trial across India and into China", he added.

Martin Scherfler from Auroville Consulting, a SCORRES partner, oversaw the installation of the irrigation system and has been monitoring the field trials in Tamil Nadu.

“Existing irrigation control systems in India are typically manual, or rely on time clocks that have a lack of monitoring oversight", said Scherfler.

“Additionally, heavy subsidies and, in some states, even free electricity for the agricultural sector in India has prohibited farmers from investing in solar pumps. Reducing pumping demands through precision irrigation will make solar pumps more financially competitive for farmers. This project removes the need for costly hardware, and creates a more affordable, cloud-based solution for smart irrigation", Scherfler added.

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