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By Louise Pobjoy 10 August 2022 5 min read

How farmers irrigate was the subject of a new study.

With the reality of climate change, it’s predicted that droughts will become more frequent and prolonged in Australia. CSIRO’s Drought Resilience Mission is collaborating with industry, government and other stakeholders to tackle the challenge of drought.

CSIRO recently consulted irrigators across Australia to explore what strategies they use to mitigate the impact of drought, and how together we can better prepare for it. The study gives great insight into the challenges and potential solutions to drought resilience.

Drought and its impact

Rainfall across southern Australia has significantly decreased in the past few decades, with considerable periods of time spent in drought. This not only affects dryland crops, but also reduces stream flow and the amount of water available for irrigation.

This is a huge financial and emotional burden on our farmers. Farmers have to juggle the boom and bust years that come with variations in rainfall. Other challenges include maintaining productivity, increased temperatures and evaporation, and competition for water.

Also, drought impacts rural communities, threatening their water security and leading to reduced spending, depopulation, service closures and wellbeing concerns. Cities do not escape unscathed either, with increased costs, disrupted availability of food, and poor air quality from dust storms.

Dr Graham Bonnett, leader of CSIRO’s Drought Resilience Mission, says rainfall is predicted to continue to decrease, at least for a while in many southern areas.

“There’s going to be less water available for everybody. So the question is, what do you do about that?”

Studying drought resilient irrigated agriculture

The Drought Resilience Mission’s scoping study “aimed to unpack the challenges irrigators face in terms of managing and adapting to drought, what have they done already to adapt to drought, and what are their thoughts on the areas of innovation going forward to better adapt and respond to drought,” says CSIRO’s Dr Emma Jakku, study co-author.

For irrigators interviewed, water access, storage, availability and recycling were key challenges to managing irrigation and drought on farms. They also noted difficulties around irrigation cost and complexity, salinity and evaporation. Other challenges included how drought impacts crop production and yield, staffing, and buying or leasing property.

Some irrigators spoke about the serious impact of drought on personal and community wellbeing too. “It’s really affected the working part of the community… As our program gets reduced, so does all our outgoings to those people,” one said.

There were many similarities in how irrigators prepared for and responded to drought. For example, with water-efficient irrigation infrastructure and technology, water budgeting, adapting cropping, and maintaining soil health and moisture.

Some irrigators had also diversified their incomes, with one using coal seam gas to support the farm. “We need non-rain impacted income, and that's probably our biggest problem when you just rely on rain, is that it's not reliable,” he said.

Importantly, many irrigators feel they already operate as efficiently as possible with water demand on their farms. They also have limited on-farm options if water supply reduces further. They are seeking new, innovative approaches to reduce water use and find alternative sources of water.

To this end, irrigators suggested approaches such as improving irrigation systems and groundwater access; better automation and water monitoring; drones; on-farm weather stations; long-term weather forecasts; plant breeding; and addressing salinity, evaporation and sustainability.

Irrigators also called for system-wide changes to drought planning and water allocation, trading, regulation and security. As well as the need for objective decision-making, and system equity and transparency.

Collaboration was flagged as key to achieving these changes, with one irrigator saying: “It needs to come down to government working alongside grower groups, and grower groups being strong to provide information and feedback to government.”

Thirsty crops require significant water. Improving efficiency across the sector can lead to vast benefits.

What will CSIRO do now?

CSIRO has invested a lot already in on-farm innovation and precision agriculture technology. Dr Bonnett says we now have a sense of where irrigators are in terms of drought resilience, CSIRO will work to further support it.

This means exploring those system-wide changes. For example, improving water supply and security, as well as water allocation, water market and water trading processes. This is vital, because even with the best irrigation systems in the world, you will only get so far if there’s no water.

Among these, Dr Bonnett highlights water banking and desalinisation as major opportunities.

“In the case of water banking, we’re exploring the possibility of taking water in higher rainfall years and storing it underground in aquifers for future use,” he says.

“With desalination, we are exploring what the brackish water resources are across the country and how they could supplement water supply in lower rainfall years.”

But Dr Bonnett notes there are technological barriers to solve. This includes what to do with salt extracted during the desalination process.

CSIRO is exploring the science for developing solutions to overcome water-related governance and regulatory hurdles.

“For example, if you take water that’s above ground that’s your allocation. However, if you put it underground, in some places you lose the rights to that water, because the rights don’t travel with it,” he explains.

However, policy changes are not easily made and involve a whole range of different levels of government and stakeholders. “There’s no easy fix, it requires a broader level discussion about how the policy could be improved, policy context and settings,” Dr Jakku explains.

Consideration also needs to be given to approaches to support morale and strengthen social connection in rural communities that support irrigators.

Water does not need to be drawn from dams and waterways. Storage through water banking can provide an alternative source of water for agriculture, wider industry and town water supplies alike.

What are the benefits of this work?

Dr Jakku believes the study has given Australian irrigators a voice and will help direct further research. This work will improve our understanding of key misconceptions and barriers to adopting drought resilient strategies, and identify opportunities for collaboration

For irrigators, Dr Bonnett says this work will lead to economic benefit. “With all the strategies to become more water efficient, we are trying to reduce variation in levels of production and income, so they are not as up and down,” he says.

In turn, this will benefit rural communities economically, and reduce the negative social impact of drought.

What’s next?

On-farm water efficiency will likely continue to improve as technology advances. However, while some irrigators feel further agtech tools may help with decision-making, they are only part of the picture.

Next steps should also include system-wide solutions to tackle drought.

CSIRO’s Drought Resilience Mission is focused on working with government, industry and communities to come up with these solutions.

And while we may not have all the answers yet, Dr Bonnett believes this study has provided solid guidance on which solutions to explore.

“We’ve got to come up with options that aren’t so far fetched that they never get to be used. I think we now have a good foundation to go and think through what some of those might be,” he says.

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