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Best practice in Water Management - Examples from India, Spain and Germany

On the occasion of World Water Day 2023, Naturland presents best practice examples, all of which aim to make water use in agriculture more sustainable: Vijay Kumar supports smallholder farmers in India, Rafael Alonso Aguilera manages an organic olive grove in Spain and Dr. Wolfgang Patzwahl supports a project on water management systems in viticulture in Germany.

Lea Moog, Naturland e.V.

India: Andhra Pradesh Community managed natural farming

Vijay Kumar is the Executive Vice Chairman of the Indian non-profit Rythu Sadhikara Samstha, which focuses on organic agriculture, and an advisor on agriculture and cooperation to the State Government of Andhra Pradesh. With his work, he actively supports the government’s vision to make the whole state of Andhra Pradesh a natural farming state by 2027.

Community managed Natural Farming to tackle the challenges of water scarcity and soil loss

India is facing multiple challenges concerning soil and water: The country has 16 percent of the world’s population, but it possesses only four percent of the world’s freshwater resources. India is also losing five billion tons of soil per year - 16 tons of soil per hectare per year. With climate change, these challenges are likely to intensify in the future.

The Government of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh turned to Natural Farming (NF) as a way of solving these multiple crises. The goals of the program are to enhance farmers’ net incomes by reducing their costs of cultivation, improving their yields, reducing their risks and enabling them to get remunerative prices. For the implementation of the program, grassroots institutions such as Self-Help Groups, Village Organizations and Farmer's Producer Organizations are being strengthened, and involved training and technical support are offered at the village level to the farmers. In 2022, 1,060,000 farmers took part in the program, which accounted for about 17 percent of farmers in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Of all farmers participating in the program, 86 percent are small and marginal farmers with around one hectare of land.

What is community managed Natural Farming? Community managed Natural Farming in Andhra Pradesh is a holistic land management practice that leverages the power of photosynthesis in plants to close the carbon cycle, and build soil health, crop resilience and nutrient density.

Principles of community managed Natural Farming:

  • No synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, weedicides
  • Soil to be covered with crops 365 days
  • Diverse crops, 15 – 20 crops, include trees
  • Keep soil covered with crop residues, whenever living plants are not there
  • Minimal disturbance of soils – minimal tillage
  • Farmers’ own seeds to be used. Indigenous seeds are preferred
  • Integrate animals into farming

The impact of community-managed natural farming for farmers

In the Second Interim Report of 2021-22, the impacts of Andhra Pradesh Community Managed Natural Farming (NF) were assessed by the Institute for Development Studies, Andhra Pradesh. As a major impact, the report stated that the cost of cultivation was significantly reduced. Yield differences were not significant between NF and Non-NF farms, but the report stated a significant increase in net income for NF farmers. Another overall impact was that NF farms reported better soil health, crop health, resilience, economic empowerment of farmers and dignity of labor.

What is community managed Natural Farming? Community managed Natural Farming in Andhra Pradesh is a holistic land management practice that leverages the power of photosynthesis in plants to close the carbon cycle, and build soil health, crop resilience and nutrient density. Principles of community managed Natural Farming:

  • No synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, weedicides
  • Soil to be covered with crops 365 days
  • Diverse crops, 15 – 20 crops, include trees
  • Keep soil covered with crop residues, whenever living plants are not there
  • Minimal disturbance of soils – minimal tillage
  • Farmers’ own seeds to be used; indigenous seeds are preferred
  • Integrate animals into farming

    The effects of community managed natural farming on water

    With the practice of community managed Natural Farming various positive effects on water can be observed:

    • Enabling clean rivers
      • no synthetic chemicals in the rivers and greater soil carbon and
      • soil biology filter and hold impurities
    • Enhancing the safety of ‘reservoirs’ – reduced run offs
    • Reduction in crop water requirement
    • Expanding the irrigation capacities of existing irrigation tanks and reservoirs
    • Arresting unsustainable depletion of groundwater
    • Resilience to floods
    • Drought proofing and restoration of degraded lands, saline lands and enabling ‘un-fallowing’ of lands
    • Increasing cropping intensity through 365 days green cover

    In 2021, Andhra Pradesh has seen unseasonal rainfall across the state. Andra Pradesh Community Managed Natural Farmers (APCNF) have experienced less damage compared to other farmers. Source: Vijay Kumar

    With Community managed natural farming in Andhra Pradesh farmers can achieve 365 days green cover in semi-arid areas. Source: Vijay Kumar

    Spain: Responsible and efficient irrigation management in organic olive farming

    Rafael Alonso Aguilera is the director of the organic olive farm "Oro del Desierto", which uses technical innovation and agroecological methods to successfully reduce water consumption in olive production and make it sustainable. In areas with a Mediterranean climate and a long dry season, water is very limited, even more so in Almeria or the Tabernas desert where the climate is semi-desert. Therefore, good water management - whether irrigation or rainwater harvesting - is essential in a sustainable olive grove. The organic farm "Oro del Desierto" shows how it is possible to carry out sustainable water management in olive growing even in difficult climatic conditions.

    The organic farm "Oro del Desierto" with around 2.500 olive trees is located in the Tabernas desert, Spain. Source: Naturland e.V.

    Rainwater is collected and stored in 2 storage basins with a capacity of 9,000 m³ and 15,000 m³. Source: Naturland e.V.

    Rainwater harvesting and storage

    With various measures, the Alonso family manages to optimize the water that falls from the sky. As a way of capturing water when there is torrential rain on one slope of the farm, the family dug up holes of one cubic metre that fill up with water when it rains. Those holes retain the water so that there is no runoff and no damage, and they release the water a little at a time. This way, the water is slowly entering the reservoirs and erosion is prevented.

    Innovative technology

    In addition to collecting and storing rainwater, the farm has applied something innovative to the soil of the olive grove: "When we planned the farm, we made a hole of one cubic metre [per tree] and provided Isolite, which is a porous ceramic and polymer that absorbs 100 times its volume in water. Therefore, when we irrigate, we recharge the kind of sponge that is there. We recharge it and it no longer releases water by contact or evaporation, it can only be absorbed by the root of a plant." The farm uses a subterranean drip irrigation system which allows for better water dosing by supplying it in small, measured amounts. By irrigating underground, more water is saved and used more efficiently as evaporation is avoided and a wet spot is created closer to the roots. "For irrigation, we have an algorithm. We have our own patented irrigation system that evaluates environmental humidity, temperature, radiation and wind speed. If we say a thousand cubic meters, the algorithm distributes the thousand cubic meters at the times when the olive grove needs it most. The irrigation equipment is all buried at 50 centimetres so that there is no breakage or evaporation, and it provides the water in localized areas, in the place that we think is suitable for the living root."

    Agroecological measures

    In addition to the efficient irrigation system, the farm implements other measures to keep water in the soil in the best possible way: Minimal tillage to avoid runoff, plant covers that favor infiltration into the soil, covers of crop residues on the surface that prevent evaporation, and organic matter that keeps the soil moist for a longer period. With all these measures the farm “Oro del Desierto” was able to reduce water consumption considerably. Normally, the average consumption of water in olive groves is around 5,000 cubic metres per hectare and year. At “Oro del Desierto” the water consumption is as low as 1,000 cubic metres per year.

    Germany: The VINAQUA project as a possible climate change adaptation strategy in viticulture

    Dr. Wolfgang Patzwahl has been an expert advisor for viticulture at Naturland for 27 years. He runs an engineering office for technology and management in viticulture and horticulture with a focus on irrigation technology and climate change adaptation measures. He is involved in the VINAQUA project, in which a site-adapted irrigation strategy has been developed for a vineyard in Volkach, southern Germany. The project was accompanied scientifically in terms of soil ecology, plant physiology and oenology.

    The results of the scientific investigations so far show that the new cultivation system with all-year-round greening does not reduce the quality of the wines and, moreover, provides the option to improve and develop new wine styles. The new type of soil management promotes the build-up of humus, increases the infiltration rate and water storage capacity of the soil, and drastically reduces the risk of erosion and associated off-site damage to drinking water as well as municipal and private infrastructure.

    Climate change and viticulture: Changes and adaptation possibilities

    Up to now, it could be assumed that in most of Germany's wine-growing regions, extreme drought was to be expected in summer in about three out of ten years. As the forecasts of the various climate models show, a significant change in this situation can be expected in the near future.

      Key points of climate change:

      • More heat days per year
      • Decrease in summer precipitation
      • More heavy precipitation events   
      • More surface runoff
      • More winter precipitation in the aqueous phase   
      • Increase in variability of climatic conditions

      This results in an increased stress on buffer systems in soil and plants.

      The effects in vineyard and wine:

      • Increased water shortage situations in the vineyard
      • Fluctuating yields (quantitative and qualitative)
      • High must weights
      • Increase in soil erosion
      • Degradation of soil fertility
      • Immigration of harmful organisms

      As a result of these changes, winegrowing enterprises are faced with the challenge of adapting their cultivation system to the changed conditions. One possibility is to cultivate other grape varieties that are better able to cope with the changing climatic conditions - especially higher temperatures and dry periods. However, the limits for such a change of variety are set very narrowly from the point of view of the wine market and regional traditions, and this step is therefore only a viable option for a limited number of vineyards.

      For the majority of the vineyard area, it will be important to develop and implement solutions within the existing vine variety framework that ensure uniform water availability in the vineyards oriented towards the physiological stage and the quality target. At the same time, in view of the increase in heavy precipitation events in the summer months, a high degree of erosion protection must be ensured (in the most favourable case by planting vegetation over the entire area).

      The VINAQUA project established a pilot water management system. Source: Wolfgang Patzwahl

      Impact on vineyards: Visible drought damage up to total failure. Source: Wolfgang Patzwahl

      VINAQUA water management system

      Based on research work on the material intensity of grape production, the VINAQUA water management system was developed as a management and irrigation concept for vineyards that meets the challenges ahead and, in addition to wine quality, also strongly takes into account ecological (soil protection) and social (drinking water, inland navigation, etc.) aspects. In the design of the water management system, the interests of the winegrowing enterprises, the municipality, the community and the local drinking water supplier were taken into account.

      In the water management system, surface runoff from the vineyards is collected in a buffer basin and transferred to storage basins to keep the water available for drip irrigation of the vineyards. The storage capacity of the buffer and storage basins is individually dimensioned based on the site-specific conditions so that the average total amount of surface runoff for the months of November to April can be stored and thus made available for the growing season. Together with the surface runoff during the vegetation period, this usually results in a total amount of water available during the vegetation period, which, when using a water-saving and quality-oriented controlled drip irrigation system, allows for a whole-area, year-round greening of the vineyards. This in turn brings enormous advantages in terms of soil structure, soil fertility and water absorption capacity of the soil. Especially in view of the increase in heavy precipitation events during the summer months, this increase in the water absorption capacity of the soil through a vineyard greening system comprising many species is important. This can significantly reduce the risk of erosion and the costs caused by erosion events for vineyards and downstream. By retaining and returning surface runoff and significantly reducing soil erosion, both drinking water supply companies/institutions and the flood protection sector (respective municipalities) benefit.

      This text is a translation. No guarantee can be given for the correctness.


      Lea Moog is the contact person for Naturland members in Spain, Greece and international livestock farms. She is also involved in the implementation of Naturland's standards on water and offers training and workshops on the subject.

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