The report entitled “Analysis of the Formation and Use of Water Resources for the Purposes of Agriculture and Rural Areas” drafted for the European Fund for the Development of Polish Rural Areas (EFRWP) indicates that ongoing climate change and the resulting extreme hydrological phenomena, such as droughts and floods, will be among crucial challenges faced by the agricultural sector and rural areas in the coming years. As much as 35% of arable land in Poland is already threatened by water shortage on an ongoing basis, while close to 70% of grasslands are located in areas troubled by water deficit. Due to climate change and some of the lowest surface water resources in Europe, the Polish agricultural sector is facing water deficit as one of the biggest challenges in recent years.
The last 20 years have seen a hike in water uptake in Poland. The study shows that approx. 70% of water is used by the industrial sector, 20% by municipal services, and barely 10% is utilised for the purpose of irrigation in agriculture, forestry and for filling and replenishing fish farm ponds. The report also indicates, however, that the Poles are gradually learning to save water: its consumption for the purposes of national economy and general population has declined by 9% compared to 2000.
The authors of the report also note that actual water consumption for agricultural purposes is far higher. This is because statistics do not include water consumed in agricultural production throughout the vegetation period, including rainwater and water from unregistered sources. According to the presented results, approx. 51.4 billion cubic metres of water are used in Poland every year for agricultural purposes, which makes up over 88% of the country’s total water resources. 75% of that figure constitute the so-called water footprint, i.e. rainwater returned by plants back to the atmosphere.
“This data show a clear picture in which the agricultural sector benefits the most from precipitation. As a result, climate change and droughts not only intensify losses in crop harvests and animal husbandry, leading to an increase in food prices, but are also the root cause of deteriorating living conditions of the inhabitants of rural areas,” says Krzysztof Podhajski, President of the Board of the European Fund for the Development of Polish Rural Areas.
“How will the drought affect agriculture if no remedial actions are taken? Its impact will include e.g. a decline in average harvest size and milk production by as much as 6% in case of a one-year drought. However, if the drought continues for several consecutive years, it will prove necessary to curb cereal consumption in domestic production by as much as 12% in the next 15 years,” reads the information sent by the European Fund for the Development of Polish Rural Areas.
This is why, as the authors of the report have stressed, it is crucial to create an efficient water management system in rural areas. Its current condition, including among others infrastructure (comprising outdated and neglected melioration systems from 1960s and 1970s), as well as the lack of sufficient solutions permitting water retention in rural areas so it can be later used in agriculture, will gradually lead e.g. to growing competition with respect to access to limited water resources among the inhabitants of rural areas and agricultural producers.
According to the analysis, the water management system should be based on three pillars: developing small-scale water retention and small water bodies, improving the efficiency of existing melioration infrastructure, and using groundwater.
“There are currently around 100 large water bodies in Poland and over 32,000 small water retention structures, including small water bodies with a volume beneath 5m cubic metres. In total, they help retain approx. 7% of the average annual water outflow from the territory of Poland. It is too little to manage water resources rationally and considerably curb the risk of flooding, not to mention fighting the drought,” says the study coordinator Mateusz Balcerowicz.
According to the authors of the report, building small water retention structures (i.e. storing water in the environment for local purposes) and building small water bodies, including ponds, raising water table level in lakes, and recreating the retention capacity in areas where water level has been falling.
“Initiatives of this sort are by far easier and quicker to execute than an investment process required for large water regulation structures and water bodies. Furthermore, local inhabitants are less likely to object to them. Small water retention structures and retaining water locally can help improve and increase the volume of water resources in the given area, delay their outflow, and increase the level of groundwater. This is why building small water bodies in rural areas should receive extensive and varied support, both financially and organisationally. Ensuring access to water is the first step towards combatting the consequences of drought in agriculture. The next one involves building appropriate water infrastructure to help collect retained water and deliver it to where it is needed,” adds Mateusz Balcerowicz.
Improving the technical condition of and investing in water melioration also plays an important role in securing rural areas against water deficit; apart from supporting agricultural production, they also help protect the land from flooding and form an important element of environmental protection and reduction in the emissions of greenhouse gases. The majority of existing melioration systems requires modernisation and expansion, however: they are currently being maintained in approx. 3m ha of cultivated land, i.e. in approx. 47% of meliorated areas in Poland.
Apart from small water retention and melioration, one of the most effective tools in combatting drought in agriculture consists in providing water for the plants using irrigation equipment based e.g. on groundwater, the supply of which in Poland remains at a good level. While in the European Union the share of surface where irrigation systems are used in relation to total cultivated land amounts to approx. 9.1%, in Poland it is only 1.9%.
Putting a stop to the devastation of existing water infrastructure, new investments in melioration systems and small retention structures, and devising better conditions to keep them in good shape are some of the tools that will help the Polish agricultural sector adapt to climate change and deal with increasingly frequent droughts.
The report entitled “Analysis of the Formation and Use of Water Resources for the Purposes of Agriculture and Rural Areas” was drafted in 2020 at the request of the European Fund for the Development of Polish Rural Areas by the Expert Team of the Association of Water and Melioration Engineers and Technicians, Local Expert Group in Warsaw.