Drip, drop. Can innovations save water in Kazakhstan?

15 Jul 2016

Frankly speaking, I had never given much thought to how and where my water comes from until I moved to Astana.

The quality of water in Astana is far worse than in Almaty, where I came from, and suddenly water became an issue in my life. For instance, although tap water here is considered suitable for drinking, many residents prefer to buy bottled water or install filters.

The outlook for Kazakhstan shows that the country might experience a 50% water shortage by 2040. Outdated facilities, a focus on modernization rather than saving, lack of water specialists capable of taking accurate stock of water use and consumption, and poor coordination among ministries responsible for water management all contribute to this risk.

According to the Nature journal, as of October 2014, Central Asia in general is considered a large water-waster relative to the size of its economies and populations.

In Kazakhstan, this is due to two factors: over-reliance of the economy on extensive agriculture that applies traditional methods and heavy industry such as mining, both of which demand extremely high amounts of water.

The country is increasing incentives to save water in all economic sectors, especially agriculture, which accounts for 66% of water loss. This includes more efficient irrigation systems; water-saving innovations, especially in rice-growing areas, and crop diversification, especially in dry regions.

To help resolve water challenges in Kazakhstan, a joint EU/UNDP/UNECE project supporting the country’s transition to green economies is now bringing innovations to water management systems in the north of Kazakhstan. People there consider agriculture a luxury because it demands greater heating and water expenses.

A combination of three water-saving technologies – hydrogel, agro fiber, and drip irrigation – is being used to show how the same amount of crops can be grown with more water-efficient practices.

  • Hydrogel is a water accumulator. It contains a polymer chain, a highly absorbent jelly-like material which can sponge up something as small as morning dew. A plant with hydrogel injected in its root zone will obtain exactly the amount of water it needs. As a result, the plant doesn’t get affected by changes in soil’s moisture levels, and grows faster than the rest of the plants.
  • By applying agro fiber, a ground cover fabric, on the area of crop growth, farmers can create especially favorable and refined conditions for the plants. For example, the fabric is invaluable when higher temperature of the soil is needed, but air blanketing can destroy the plants; when the plants need to be protected from insects and birds, but should receive the vital sunshine; and when weed growth should be curtailed without impairing crop growth.
  • Drip irrigation is when far-reaching pipes deliver dosed water portions through glass droppers directly to the roots of the crops.

The hope is that these technologies will prove to be far more water-efficient. They are now used in 160 farms in the Kostanay and Akmola regions, which are already harvesting a good amount of strawberries. Considering that these regions are in the northern parts of Kazakhstan, the harvest of local, organic, and fresh strawberries in the middle of June is an indication of good results of these technologies.

I’ll be happy to taste the vegetables and fruit when I next visit Kostanay to see how they’ve grown.

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