Growing Global Population Puts Focus On Irrigation

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Irrigation is key to feeding a hungry world and that will bring challenges and opportunities to southern Alberta’s irrigation industry, according to an irrigation expert.

The global population will hit nine billion by 2025, and 80 per cent of the extra food needed by then will have to be produced on irrigated land, Roger Hohm, branch head of the Alberta Irrigation Secretariat, told attendees at the recent Tiffin Conference.

“That is very good news for southern Alberta irrigators and food processors,” said Hohm. “The long-term ability to feed the world’s growing population will increasingly depend on an ever-shrinking land base and increased competition for limited water supplies.”

But those same factors have put the sector at a water management crossroads, Hohm said. “Critical decisions are needed to determine the right path to follow.”

Changing demographics, along with climate change and the variability of weather, make the future difficult to predict, said Hohm. And he said future water agreements may be designed to actively foster greater food production, and the historical allocation of water in Alberta may have to be reviewed.

Hohm noted Alberta continues to become more urbanized, and that translates into increased public pressure to protect water resources, and increased scrutiny of how – and how much – water is used for industrial uses. Climate change is another factor, although it’s not new to agriculture in Alberta and the industry has always adapted to changing climatic conditions on the Prairies, he said.

“However, accelerated changes in our climate will require faster adaptation than ever before,” he said. “We will have to change the way we think about water and agriculture, and while feeding the world is important, it will not change access to water in the future.”

Hohm touched on a delicate item when discussing water supplies. Increased water storage construction on the river systems in the South concerns some, but Hohm said there is no other way to take advantage of the massive spring run-off from mountain snowpacks, streams and rivers. Without a way to capture more of that water, much of it will continue to flow east and north, he noted.

Southern Alberta irrigators are in position to help boost production for the growing population, said Hohm. While they are already the most efficient farmers in the irrigation world, they can, and will, get even more efficient, he said. Protecting the environment while boosting food production with more irrigation, and likely more reservoirs, puts the focus on infrastructure, he said.

“I don’t believe we are really short of water; we are short of water at specific times.”

The bottom line globally, said Hohm, is simple: If ways aren’t found for irrigators, including those in southern Alberta, to increase food production, there will be more hungry people in the world.

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