Greening the desert

Responsive Drip Irrigation’s (RDI’s) plant-responsive, nature-driven system has delivered impressive results

Greening the desert


he United Arab Emirates is greening the desert and addressing its food security needs through responsive drip irrigation (RDI) which is the world’s first irrigation system that allows plants to regulate water delivery to them. The diminishing fresh water, climate change and world hunger have been looming over the planet and Pakistan.

In hyper-arid environments like Abu Dhabi, Cholistan, Thar and southern Balochistan, the extreme temperatures and sandy soils make growing sustainable crops challenging. For generations, the people living in water-scarce, desert regions have had to diligently work and strive to create productive farmland in the harshest of environments.

Responsive drip irrigation’s (RDI’s) plant-responsive, nature-driven system has delivered impressive results.

With the RDI, date palm, fig, sweet corn, water melon and many types of vegetables have been successfully grown in the open fields as well as in green tunnels in Abu Dhabi, Pakistan and many other parts of the world. The pilot projects saved 40 percent water, 70 percent energy and required 50 percent less fertilisers.

This is a complete climate smart technology that not only requires low energy but also minimum tillage and land preparation. This is a complete regenerative technology. A large number of big farms are adopting the RDI for crop production in open fields and vegetables in controlled conditions.

The Pakistan Agricultural Research Council has successfully tested the RDI at the NARC research farms and farmers’ fields in Potohar and Bhakkar (Thal) for growing tomato, cauliflower, bitter cucumber, broccoli, garlic, and citrus with less water, energy, fertilisers and labour and improved yields.

The RDI will be most suitable in dry, hot and water-scarce regions, including Balochistan, Sindh, southern Punjab, the KP, Thar and Cholistan. The RDI will demonstrate more water saving due to controlled evaporation in this hot and dry environment. It will be a blessing for water-starved and vulnerable communities of Thar and Balochistan.

It has a high initial capital cost, but the government can provide subsidy to generate livelihoods for poor communities. This will be equally applicable and beneficial for the saline water of Thar and Cholistan for kitchen gardening, arid horticulture, fodder and rangelands.

If we have to achieve food security and social equality and increase economic opportunities, we need solution-oriented thinking that empowers stakeholders and communities to take action. If farmers of the fragile regions are to prosper in the face of climate change, we need to take the risk away from their efforts to innovate.

Provision of innovative irrigation technologies like the RDI, an arid horticulture production technology, is key to lowering risk to livelihoods, farming enterprises and value chains. A little public investment on the RDI can not only improve livelihoods of vulnerable communities and ensure their food security but with appropriate planning also boost rain-fed agriculture.

The RDI can address urban food security by growing vegetables in controlled tunnels in peri-urban and green spaces. Responsive Drip Irrigation is committed to building a greener tomorrow for generations to come.

The RDI can address urban food security by growing vegetables in controlled tunnels in peri-urban and green spaces. It can help build a greener tomorrow. There is hope for recovery from the global crisis by working together. We just need to plant the seed.

Israel, China and India have succeeded in advancing irrigated agriculture on a wide scale on arid and semi-arid lands, with intensive use of technology and capital, and firm state-led irrigation policies. For this to happen in Pakistan, there must be a clear roadmap and a strategy that enjoys popular support. The strategy and approach must be simple, consistent and holistic.

Some main points of the policy can be:

The RDI may be confined to horticultural crops, including fruits and vegetables. Priority may be assigned to desert regions (Cholistan, Thar, Thal) and water-scarce Balochistan, Potohar plateaus and command areas of mini and small dams.

Targetted small land holders, public subsidy and support for 1 to 2 acres on RDI will not only sustain the livelihood of deprived communities of Cholistan, Thar, Thal and Balochistan but also enhance their resilience to drought.

Incentivise local manufacturing of the RDI and other micro-irrigation technologies to make it affordable for small-land holding farmers. This will not only lower price and increase production but also create jobs. The government must facilitate low-cost local fabrication of micro irrigation equipment and incentivise service and supply companies.

Training farmers in use of this high-tech new technology with advisory service on agronomic practices, crop varieties, diseases and post-harvest will be important confidence-boosting measures.

These suggestions on the adoption of the RDI, if carefully implemented for fruits and vegetable production, offer the potential for great socio-economic uplift.

Conventional irrigation systems are based on timed irrigation intervals for delivery of set amounts of water where human estimation decides when and how much to irrigate based on either plant health or moisture sensors whereas the RDI is based on organic chemistry, interacting directly with the plants’ roots to deliver water and nutrients on demand. There is no human involvement in deciding when to irrigate and how much to irrigate, only plant root and the RDI microspores interaction and decision-making is involved.

There will always be a need to ensure 24/7 water availability in tubes. Water and nutrient delivery fluctuate in response to the plant. Each plant regulates its own water delivery, adjusting as needed for weather and stages of development etc.

The RDI tube has millions of microscopic openings along its surface to release water and does not require any filtration as opposed to earlier drip systems that are subject to clogging and malfunction.

The writer is the director of the Climate Energy and Water Research Institute of the Pakistan Agriculture Research Council. He has 25 years of experience in micro-irrigation and water management

Greening the desert