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“Agriculture is a major user of ground and surface water in the United States, accounting for 80% of the Nation's consumptive water use and over 90% in many Western States” (“Irrigation and Water Use”). As population grows, our demand for food and agriculture also grows. Therefore, we need a more efficient irrigation system.
In “U.S. to tighten tap for farmers”, Bloomekatz mentioned that the government had reduced or even refused to supply water to some agriculture fields in 2009. In Central Valley, the government had refused to provide water for over 200 water districts. In the same time, the government had also reduced the municipal and the industrial allotment by half. Reduced water allotment forced farmers to grow fewer crops which eventually lead to the lay-off of current employees. This is when water shortage and irrigation are not only an ecological problem but also an economic problem.
Since most of our freshwater is used for irrigation, we are left with 2 options: find an alternative irrigation system or continue to waste water. Restructuring our irrigation system will solve a large portion of our freshwater shortage problem. In 1998, seawater irrigation came into the picture. “Seawater irrigation is defined as growing salt-tolerant crops on land using water pumped from ocean for irrigation” (Gleen, Brown, and O’Leary 77). Seawater irrigation is promising because 97% of our planet is covered by saltwater. Compared to 1% of freshwater, we will have greater flexibility with saltwater.
On the other hand, seawater irrigation also has some drawbacks. Salinity is the main problem. Salt concentration will increase over time if we don’t provide appropriate treatment to the soil (Ashraf, Ozturk, and Athar 189). However, authors mention that we can solve salinity problem by using an appropriate water drainage leaching system (189).
Another drawback is that most of our plants can’t survive saltwater. In “Irrigating Crops with Seawater”, Gleen, Brown, and O’Leary mention that the upper limit for most salt tolerant plants are 15ppm which is still lower than the 35 ppt salt concentration in saltwater (77). Authors argue that growing conventional plant with seawater will cause the salt to build up in the root and cause the plant to die. If we want to use saltwater, we have to come up with a much more salt-tolerant plants such as Halophytes.
Additional Benefits: Halophytes
Halophyte is a wild salt-tolerant plant. Gleen, Brown, and O’Leary mention that there are around 2,000 to 3,000 species of halophytes.
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"Seawater Irrigation Is Solution To Water Shortages." 123HelpMe.com. 23 Jan 2020
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Salicornia is a popular halophyte that is being tested in some countries. Salicornia or known as sea asparagus can be eaten fresh or cooked (Dickerson). Gleen, Brown, and O’Leary claim that we can use Salicornia as diet for cattle. They explain that there is no quality difference between cattle that graze on regular plant and the one that eat halophytes as their mixed diet (78).
Salicornia can also be used as biofuel. It can be extracted by regular oilseed equipments (Gleen, Brown, and O’Leary 78). They claim that the seed of the plant contains about 30% of oil which is similar to soybeans and other oilseed crops (79). In addition, Boeing and Honeywell’s UOP has conducted a study at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi regarding the possibility to use halophytes as an alternative biomass fuel (“Halophytes Move to Forefront of Viable Biofuel Candidates”). According to them, halophytes have fewer problems than corn-based ethanol. Those two companies are positive that halophytes can be a candidate for jet fuel.
Seawater Irrigation Projects Around the World
Seawater irrigation has been tested in many countries. The Seawater Foundation has conducted a study in Eritrea, a country in North Africa. Eritrea’s main problem is drought. Drought causes food and water scarcity. Eritrea also faces rising unemployment. The Seawater Foundation collaborates with the Global Seawater Inc. to do a project called Greening of Eritrea. They hope to solve the food and water shortage problem in Eritrea by using seawater irrigation.
According to “Seawater Farms Eritrea”:
“Construction began with a huge channel from the Red Sea. This saltwater river, wide enough for small boats, runs onto the land, providing water to the land-based brick and concrete circles in which we raise our shrimp, fills the three salt lakes that hold the bulk of our fish, nurtures the thousands of mangroves that will shade its shores, irrigates our field crops, and drains, finally, into a sea garden park... From the sea garden, the water slowly percolates through the soil on its sub-surface return to the sea, as clean as or cleaner than it was before. This cycle of use guarantees that the sea will not be fouled by farm wastes, and that the waters offshore remain clean”.
With the help of this project, Eritrea is capable of growing food or even exporting them. It also solves Eritrea’s unemployment problem.
Besides Eritrea, there are other institutions and countries that are interested in seawater irrigation. China, for example, is currently doing an experiment in Dongyin and Binzhou counties about seawater irrigation (“China Experiments Seawater-Irrigation Agriculture”). According to Professor Xu Zhubin, China is very likely to vastly use seawater irrigation in the next decade. NASA also shows its interest in testing halophytes as fuel (Dickerson).
Seawater irrigation is a viable option to reduce pollution and solve the water shortage. To be realistic, we can’t replace all of our crops with halophytes because some of our current crops cannot be substituted by halophytes. We need to corporate the use of halophytes and our current crops in order to be sustainable.
By using seawater irrigation, we can make changes. With a small amount of change, we can save a lot more freshwater for our future generation. Seawater irrigation and halophytes can help us to be more sustainable. In addition, we can also get additional benefits from Halophytes. They can be used for consumption or as alternative biofuel. In conclusion, seawater irrigation is a project with good future prospects.