Crop kites

Crop kites

Post by WaterUnderground contributor Mikhail Smilovic. Mikhail is a PhD  candidate in the Department of Civil Engineering at McGill University, in Quebec.

Crops use water for photosynthesis, absorbing nutrients, and transpiration, or the plant-equivalent of sweating. A crop may experience water-stress if the soil surrounding the roots is not adequately wet, and this stress will affect the crop differently depending on the crop’s stage of growth. Irrigation is the watering of plants to ultimately avoid such water-stress.

Non-irrigated crops are more vulnerable to intervals of dry and hot weather, and the increasing unpredictability of a changing climate will further complicate other crop management tools, such as choosing different cultivars (the particular variety of crop, some which may deal with certain stresses in an improved way) or changing planting dates.

Irrigated crops do not experience water stress (they may in fact experience water stress under a non-perfect irrigation system, but forgive this for now), but the water is necessarily derived from somewhere else. This somewhere else may also experience water withdrawals from municipalities, industry, and other agriculture. The source of water may be underground, or water from a river, lake, or spring, but a connection between both underground and surface waters shares with us that water removed from a system somewhere will have a response somewhere. This somewhere may very well be an ecosystem. Irrigation may also be costly related to the abstraction, transportation, and on-farm distribution.

Between non-irrigated and irrigated is a curious place where we can increase the resiliency of our agricultural systems to periods of drought and heat with limited irrigation, while allowing crops to experience well-timed water stress. Agricultural productivity or yield is determined as the amount of crop produced per area of land, say 3 tons/hectare for wheat. When water is a limiting factor, we would be sensible to also consider water productivity, that is the ratio of crop yield and water use, or, the amount of crop produced per drop of water. The practices of limited irrigation, also known as supplemental or deficit irrigation, makes an effort to increase this water productivity.

This space in-between non-irrigated and irrigated, however, has been often poorly explored or simplified. Crop kites is a novel tool to determine and quantify the potential agricultural and water productivity associated with different irrigation practices. This is important for regions interested in shifting investments into or away from irrigation, as well as for researchers interested in evaluating limited irrigation practices as initiatives to establish food and water security, both currently and with changing climates.

A first thought might be, if a crop uses three quarters of the water than it would under ideal conditions, does the crop produce three quarters as much as the crop under ideal conditions? In fact, the answer depends very much on when this water is used.

Let us take the example of winter wheat in northern Africa. Winter wheat can be broadly characterized into five different growth stages. We can illustrate water use throughout the season with the following figure:

Water use is represented by the bottom blue colour, and the associated deficit is represented with the upper orange colour – the top line of the shape is the amount of water the crop would use under ideal conditions on the associated day. This example shows a 0, 10, 20, 30, and 40% deficit occurring in stages 1 to 5 respectively, representing a 78% water use across the entire growing season as compared to ideal conditions. Understanding both the amount of water used and when the water was used, we are able to determine the associated yield, for this example, we reach 68% of potential yield.

Now, what if we were to simulate the yield using all reasonable water uses and all reasonable distributions of the timing of this water use? The resulting shape is our crop kite, with each point associated with a water use distributed throughout the growing season in a particular way:


This shape illustrates the incredible range of yields associated with each water use; for example, 80% of potential water use relates to between ~20 and 90% of potential crop yield.

Water distributed through canals are often delivered according to a schedule, and not necessarily related to growth-stage sensitivities or actual weather. From the crop kite we can derive estimates on how the crop yield will be affected by adopting certain irrigation schedules. We elaborate on this with three examples: S1) water use is distributed to optimize yield, S2) the deficit is distributed evenly across all growth stages, S3) water is used preferentially for the earlier growth stages. The resulting crop-water production functions are illustrated in the following figure:


Although the first schedule optimizing for crop yield may be in line with the motivations of the irrigating farmer, it is often an unreasonable assumption for farmers delivered water according to predetermined schedules, but may be appropriate for farmers irrigating with a privately owned well. Evaluating the potential of supplemental irrigation necessitates estimating the ability of farmers to manage both the amount and timing of irrigation applications. Otherwise, non-reasonable assumptions may be used to evaluate and over promise estimates for agricultural production, with the fault not in the practice of limited irrigation, but in the criteria used to evaluate the system.

Crop kites demonstrate the wide range of water use-crop yield relationships, and can be used to evaluate the potential of limited irrigation to shift both food and water security.


Mikhail Smilovic is a PhD candidate at McGill University and the University of Victoria . Mikhail’s work investigates the interplay between foot security, water resources, and energy, and evaluating and integrating initiatives that increase agricultural production while reducing demands on water resources.

Limits to global groundwater use

Limits to global groundwater use

Post by WaterUnderground contributor Inge de Graaf. Inge is a postdoc fellow at Colorado School of Mines, in the USA.

Groundwater is the world’s most important source of freshwater. It supplies 2 billion people with drinking water and is used for irrigation of the largest share of the world’s food supply.

However, in many regions around the world, groundwater reserves are depleting as the resource is being pumped faster than it is being renewed by rain infiltrating through the soil. Additionally, in many cases, we are still clueless about how long we can keep drawing down these water reserves before groundwater depletion will have devastating impacts on environmental and socio-economic systems. Indeed, these devastating effects are already being observed.

The most direct effect of groundwater depletion is the decline in groundwater levels. As a direct impact, groundwater-pumping cost will increase, so too will the cost of well replacement and the cost of deepening wells. One of the indirect consequences of declining water levels is land subsidence, which is the gradual sinking of the surface. In many coastal and delta cities, increased flooding results in damages totaling billions of dollars per year. Next to this, declining groundwater levels lead to a decrease in groundwater discharge to rivers, wetlands, and lakes, resulting in rivers running dry, wetlands that are no longer sustained, and groundwater-dependent ecosystems that are harmed.

Over the past decades, global groundwater demands have more than doubled. These demands will continue to increase due to population growth and climate change.

The increase in demands and the aforementioned negative effects of groundwater depletion raise the urgent question: at what time in future are the limits to global groundwater use reached? This is when and where groundwater levels drop to a level where groundwater becomes unattainable for abstraction, or that groundwater baseflows no longer sustain river discharges.

In my PhD research, I predicted where and when we will reach these limits of groundwater consumption worldwide. I defended my dissertation last year April at Utrecht University, in the Netherlands.

Where and when are the limits reached?

Results show that many large aquifer systems are already highly depleted, especially for intensively irrigated areas in dryer regions of the world, like India, Pakistan, Mid West USA, and Mexico (see Figure 1). New areas experiencing groundwater depletion will develop in the near future, such as Eastern Europe and Africa. Future predictions show that some areas, like the Central Valley, and the High Plains Aquifer, partly recover when more recharge will becomes available. Notwithstanding, environmental groundwater demands will increase as to buffer more irregular streamflow occurrences due to climate change.

Figure 1: Estimated groundwater depletion (1960-2010) in [m], masked for aquifer areas, and zooms for hotspot regions, which are the intensively irrigated regions of the world.

In 2010, about 20% if the world population lived in groundwater depleted regions, where groundwater dropped below the economical exploitable limit. As a rule of thumb: the economic limit is reached when groundwater becomes unattainable for a local farmer, which is approximately when the water level drops to 100 m below the surface. In 2050, 26% to 36% of the world’s population will live in areas where the economic exploitable limit is reached (see Figure 2). Evidently, this persistence and increasing level of groundwater stress will impair local development and generate tension within the global socio-economic system.

Figure 2: First time that groundwater falls below the 100m limit.


Global-scale simulations

To answer my main question, I studied the effects of groundwater abstractions on river low flows and groundwater levels worldwide, as well as which trends in river low flow frequency and groundwater level change can be attributed to groundwater abstractions.

I used a newly developed physically based surface water-groundwater model to simulate i.a. river flows, lateral groundwater flow, and groundwater-surface water interactions at a high resolution (approx. 10×10 km) at the global scale. Total water demands were estimated and account for agricultural, industrial, and domestic demands. I simulated groundwater and surface water abstractions based on the availability of the resource, making the estimate reliable for future projections under climate change and for data-poor regions where we do not know how much groundwater or surface water is abstracted. Next, I developed a global-scale groundwater model. I estimated alluvial aquifer thickness worldwide, as no data at the global scale is available (see Figure 3). Aquifer thickness is one of the parameters you need to estimate groundwater flow and storage.

Figure 3: Estimated alluvial aquifer thickness. White areas are mountain regions, where no aquifers are simulated.

Simulations were done for the recent past and near future (1960-2050) and the results include maps and trends of groundwater heads, groundwater fluctuations, and river discharges.

In conclusion, most of our water reserves are hidden underground and most of our groundwater abstractions rates exceed groundwater renewing rates, leading to depletion. The growing demand and the expected climate change bring our groundwater reserves under mounting pressure. More than two-thirds of all abstracted groundwater is used for food production. Every year the world’s population is growing by 83 million people.

Improving our knowledge about how much water we can use in the near future while avoiding negative environmental and socio-economic impacts is therefore extremely important. A study like this contributes to the knowledge gap and can help guide towards sustainable water use worldwide to overcome potential political water conflicts and reduce potential socio-economic friction, as well as to secure future food production.

Want to read more? Check out the recent AGU press release or if you have more time… read my papers on dynamic water allocation (click here), development of a global groundwater model (click here, or here), or read my PhD thesis (here).


Author Inge de Graaf receiving her PhD degree from her advisor, professor Marc Bierkens (at Utrecht University, Netherlands). Note Tom Gleeson’s bald head in the lower left…


Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: