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Professor Faisal Hossain modernizes irrigation to feed the masses

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Modernizing Irrigation

A rice field in Cambodia, one region where Professor Hossain's agricultural innovations will be implemented in the future.

We cannot escape the fact that our world is growing. With hundreds of people born each day, new high-rises going up each week, and transportation systems improving each year, we are evolving and increasing our population at what feels like the speed of light. With 9.7 billion people estimated to populate the planet in 2050, 9.7 billion stomachs will need to be filled. More importantly, those 9.7 billion people need water to fulfill their dietary needs. 

With around 200 to 300 million people in Asia who are undernourished, the struggle to produce enough crops to feed the population is only increasing as the population grows and food accessibility declines. 

UW professor Faisal Hossain works tirelessly in this field to look at the source of the issue — water. His research looks at irrigation methods and attempts to modernize them by creating systems to make watering crops as efficient and effective as possible. As the first of three lectures hosted by the College of Engineering focusing on the future of food, Hossain presented in Kane Hall about this subject — how to do more with less — Oct. 10. 

Hossain discussed his breakthrough with the irrigation systems in developing countries, focusing on Pakistan and India. Hossain’s team of civil and environmental engineers created a cellphone-based irrigation advisory system that ensures farmers are more effective and efficient with their irrigation methods.

In developing countries, the old ways of irrigation, dictating when and how much to irrigate, depended on instinct, often leading to overwatering the crops. This new method of using cellphones to dictate when and how much to irrigate was implemented in Pakistan, and unlike the old system, is based on hard science.

“At the core of the issue is old habits die hard,” Hossain said. “In developing countries farming practices get handed down from one generation to another. My own father was a farmer until high school, and he tells me it’s really based on what people share on farm from one generation to the next.”

The system calculates each day and at every location what the crop water demand is. The demand tells us how much water each crop would need at a given growth stage and condition of the soil, combined with the weather patterns. After the crop water demand is calculated, the supply of water from rainfall or extra irrigation is found. 

When the supply is greater than the demand, the system tells the farmers that they do not need to irrigate. When the supply is less than the demand, it tells the farmers to irrigate. The farmers are notified via a texting system, which allows for concise and direct communication. 

After success in Pakistan, the researchers looked at improving irrigation in India, which posed more of a challenge due to the variety of crops that are planted there. Whether growing cucumbers or rice, the land plots are divided into subplots, which means the large-scale irrigation system would not work in the Indian fields. Therefore, the researchers adjusted their mechanisms to adapt to India's way of farming. 

The researchers, therefore, created the Provision of Advisory for Necessary Irrigation (PANI) system, which is similar to the system used to help the 100,000 farmers with irrigation in Pakistan. The PANI system includes technology that works on a smaller scale, allowing it to be tailored to a wide variety of crops. 

The system implemented in India uses low-power sensors on the ground to collect information on each plot of land, ranging from temperature to wind speed. The data is then sent to a low-power, wide-area network gateway tower, which acts as a transporter, pushing the information to the cloud. This information is stored and interpreted, allowing for advisories for each plot to be sent to farmers via, again, the texting system.

The system is low cost; at an annual price of $5 per farmer, it has the potential to save them a lot of money in the long run. Hossain’s view is to hear the marginalized farmers and make the system easy to implement into their daily lives. 

“The vision we have is that access to information on the water is a fundamental right for all humans and nations,” Hossain said. “In that spirit, our view is that the basic level of service for farmers to know what the likely demand and supply of water are — is a fundamental human right and that they should be able to afford it.”

Reach writer Clara Kobashigawa at Twitter: @clarakobash

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