Thirty-five Water Conservation Methods for Agriculture, Farming, and Gardening. Part 1.

Please note that this is the first of a special four-part series here at Big Picture Agriculture. One post will go up each of the next four days which will list and describe methods for producing “more with less” water use in farming.

A leading concern facing the future of agricultural production is the availability of water. It is expected that climate change will cause more extreme climate events including droughts and floods and shifts in plant growing zones. As populations grow, more efficient use of water in growing food will be of key importance.

Today, some 2.8 billion people live in water-scarce areas, but by 2030, it is expected that about half of the world’s population will live in water stressed areas.

Past overuse of fossil water from aquifers will make it necessary to improve the efficiency of irrigation and rainfed agriculture methods to grow tomorrow’s food. The increasing competition for water in urban areas and for energy uses will lessen what is now available for agriculture, estimated to be 70 to 80 percent of global fresh water use. As other interests gain a share of the fresh water supply, the production of food will need to increase at the same time that the water used to grow it decreases.

Agriculture is done using both rainfed and irrigation farming. About 80 percent of globally cultivated land is done with rainfed farming, accounting for 60 percent of world food production. Using smart methods to enhance efficient and creative water use in rainfed agriculture has the potential to increase production. The majority of the world’s poor and hungry live on rainfed farms in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, so techniques which can improve water use in these regions are very valuable. While irrigation levels have declined since the 1970s for various reasons, irrigation has the potential to expand in the future in parts of Africa.

Productivity of irrigated land is more than three times that of unirrigated land. Around 40 percent of the world’s food is produced on the 20 percent of land which is irrigated. The monetary value of the yield of irrigated crops is more than six times that of unirrigated crops because crops with higher market values tend to be grown on irrigated land.

Many of the methods known to conserve water and use it efficiently have been practiced for thousands of years in some very arid regions of the world with great success. The best systems require little maintenance while yielding maximum results. The ability to add water during crucial growth periods can greatly increase crop yields.

To follow, is a list of water saving techniques which will be helpful in growing more food with less water. Because every parcel of land requires its own best unique solution, I hope readers find this post both useful and inspirational. Please feel welcome to add other methods not included on this list, in the comments below.

1. Drip, or Micro-Irrigation

Drip irrigation delivers water (and fertilizer) either on the soil surface or directly to the roots of plants through systems of plastic tubing with small holes and other restrictive outlets. By distributing these inputs slowly and regularly, drip irrigation conserves 50 to 70 percent more water than traditional methods while increasing crop production by 20 to 90 percent. The water and fertilizer are also more easily absorbed by the soil and plants, reducing the risks of erosion and nutrient depletion.

Usually operated by gravity, drip irrigation saves both the time and labor that would otherwise be needed to water crops, leading to larger harvest yields. Small systems on timers can easily be set up by the home gardener, too.

This technology must be innovated and tailored to the crop and conditions. For example, some systems are now solar powered and tubing materials have changed. There are many styles of drip inserts which can be incorporated into the hoses and soaker hose segments can also be used. Instead of using plastic tubing, ceramic can be used as it is more porous.

Small stream diversions, water collection tanks, or holding ponds can be used to provide a gravity water supply for drip irrigation systems. Hand or peddle powered pumps or elevated buckets can also be used.

These micro-irrigation systems, while affordable, are less suitable for major rice growing areas or for staple grain growing. They are more suitable for high value vegetable gardens. Care should be taken to avoid the build-up of salts in drip-system soils.

Within the last two decades, the area irrigated using drip and other micro-irrigation methods has increased more than six-fold, to over 10 million hectares. The adoption of drip irrigation in more areas holds much hope for growing more food with less water.

2. Bottle Irrigation and Pitcher (Olla) Irrigation

Buried clay pot (olla) irrigation is an ancient technology that uses a logical idea. By burying a porous clay pot up to its neck, and filling it with water, a gardener has a 70 percent efficient watering system. Water weeps slowly out of the pot and moistens an area about one-half the diameter of the olla. Since soil is not saturated, the environment created is very healthy for the plant roots, which form a mat around the olla. (Many modern gardeners kill plants by overwatering.)

A perfect olla has a thick wall, is fired at a high temperature, has rough surfaces, and holds one quart to two gallons of water. After burying the pot and filling it with water, the top can be covered with a rock to keep it clean and prevent evaporation.

Depending upon the crop and the rainfall, filling the pots two to three times a week may be adequate.

To use an olla, place it in the middle of several plants so that the plants draw moisture from the center and grow outward onto dry land. This uses the space and the water very efficiently. Smaller ollas may be used to water containers or patio pots.

If the pots lose flow after many years of use, they can be soaked in vinegar to reopen pores. Always use clean or settled water and don’t add fertilizer so as not to clog the clay’s pores.

Here is a source from which to order ollas:

To the left is one of many possible designs to aid in using a recycled bottle as a slow release pot or plant waterer. Wine bottles, plastic bottles, and almost any bottle will work. Holes can be tapped into plastic sides or lids, or commercial plastic spikes can be purchased which the bottle can be inserted into. Or, a bottle can simply be filled with water and inverted next to a plant into moist soil. Here is the source link for the wine bottle waterer: .

3. Zai Pits

Zai planting pits are hand dug holes about ten inches wide, ten inches deep, and three feet apart (25cm x 25cm holes one meter apart). They are used to trap water and increase soil fertility, especially in arid regions with degraded, crusty soils. The pits are planted with a mixture of crop residues, manure, and seeds, and covered with a mulch of grass or leaves.

When digging the pits, the excavated soil is used to make a small ridge around the pit to help capture rainfall.

The pits can be reused if silt and sand are removed annually.

This simple technique can increase the amount of crops that smallholder farmers produce by 50 percent after just three years.

Recommended video here.

4. Drought Tolerant Crops and Seeds

Grow the right crop for the growing region. Regions which suffer water shortages are wise to plant crops which are more tolerant to drought. These include finger millet, pearl millet, Guinea millet, cowpea, teff, lentils, amaranth, fonio, emmer, various sorghums, African rice, Ethiopian oats, irregular barley, mung beans and many grasses. Ideally, researchers would be working with all of the crops on this list to improve the seeds for our crop requirements of tomorrow.

For example, researchers have improved cassava varieties over the past four decades which can increase yields two to four-fold over traditional varieties.

Traditional millets require little water and can grow in poor soils without any synthetic fertilizers. Millet is a heat resistant crop which has high calcium and fiber content as well as essential amino acids.

In addition, drought tolerant crop seeds are available both through biotechnology and from native seed varieties. Examples of drought tolerant seeds available today include corn, rice, and cotton. Just as importantly, there are flood resistant rice seeds available. Having the right, reliable, and quality seeds in hand for a new planting season is of utmost importance.

5. System of Rice Intensification (SRI) or System of Crop Intensification (SCI) or System of Root Intensification (SRI)

Millions of smallholder farmers have found that by using SRI and SCI methods of farming, they can get higher yields with fewer inputs through setting up an environment with optimal conditions for the plant. The effect is to get crop plants to grow larger, healthier, longer-lived root systems, accompanied by increases in the abundance, diversity and activity of soil organisms. These organisms constitute a beneficial microbiome for plants that enhances their growth and health.

These principles, applied to growing rice in systems for 30-some years, are being successfully applied to growing vegetables, legumes, wheat, corn, finger millet, and sugarcane. The methods use 25 to 40 percent less water, and make crops more resilient to temperature and precipitation stresses. Crops can be productive with less irrigation water or rainfall because SRI or SCI conditions enhance the capacity of soil systems to absorb and provide water.

SRI methodology is based on four main principles that interact in synergistic ways:

● Establish healthy plants early and carefully, nurturing their root potential.

● Reduce plant populations, giving each plant more room to grow above and below ground and room to capture sunlight and obtain nutrients.

● Enrich the soil with organic matter, keeping it well-aerated to support better growth of roots and more aerobic soil biota.

● Apply water purposefully in ways that favor plant-root and soil-microbial growth, avoiding flooded (anaerobic) soil conditions.

To read more about the System of Rice Intensification, I recommend this article.


(End of Part 1.)

35 Water Conservation Methods for Agriculture, Farming, and Gardening. Part 1.
35 Water Conservation Methods for Agriculture, Farming, and Gardening. Part 2.
35 Water Conservation Methods for Agriculture, Farming, and Gardening. Part 3.
35 Water Conservation Methods for Agriculture, Farming, and Gardening. Part 4. 

21 thoughts on “Thirty-five Water Conservation Methods for Agriculture, Farming, and Gardening. Part 1.

  1. sagar thakur

    dear sir/madam
    i work with tribal community ,which is located at satpuda range maharastra india ..there is need of enviourment conservation at grossrout level . main population is tribes so their role main in this activity . so how should be much aware them about it …goverment has adopt various prog for it .but their respons is less please say me an idea
    thak you

  2. Fariya

    Excellent work. Really impressed.
    Any thoughts about how to relieve a poor farmer in Pakistan from the financial burden of irrigating his crops. What would work best in Pakistan with an arid climate, decreasing water tables, recent heavy flooding??

  3. Dr. Maung Mar

    Dear Sir,
    I am an agronomist and I used to write some technical articles in Myanmar Language to use for the Myanmar technical magazines, I wish to get your permission to use some of your photos.
    Thankfully yours,

    Maung Mar

  4. Harpreet Singh

    There is one called irrigation using sprinkler method.
    That’s more common in hilly areas I suppose.

  5. K Viswanatha Reddy

    it is optimum to say System of Root Intensification instead of System of Rice Intensification since it can be applied to any crop where every input is used wisely. In rice crop I actually observed luxuriant growth of roots to an extent of one feet depth and found none dead roots. Whereas in traditional method of growing rice, at any point of time there will be more dead roots than live roots which hampers plant growth and finally yield. The terminology of System of Root Intensification best suits for any crop.


    i want to know the diagram and procedure for recharging of wells with water consevation measures in Draught
    prone area in Marathawada , Maharashtra [ India ] at wells and Plateau area


    In Agricultural applications, to have more effective use of water either thru Drip irrigation or flood irrigation, if the farmer used Water Conditiner for bore well water which is noramlly found to be hard in nature, give more yield in produce. this is because Water conditioner breaks Calcium and magnicium molecules into very fine particles and demagnatises to an effect so that the Scaling donot occur on the roots, resulting Water and menure absobtion. resulting in healthy plants and produce..


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