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Irrigation and Wildlife: Challenges and Opportunities

Saikat Kumar Basu
School of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Center for Applied Arts and Sciences, Lethbridge College, 3000 College Drive South, Lethbridge, AB Canada T1K 1L6

Guyana Journal, March 2012

Irrigation has been a powerful technology that has revolutionized modern agriculture and lead to the gross transformations of the land surface. From the days of the old surface and flood irrigation technologies to the innovation of the modern day sprinklers and center pivot systems to the advent of more recent micro-irrigation technologies, irrigation has impacted agronomic productions of crop all over the globe in a positive direction. It has helped in increasing the yield potential of different crops, transformed deserts into green oasis, generated employment and helped in generating stronger local and regional economies. Countless numbers of people, societies and communities have benefited from the spread and development of irrigation facilities. Truly speaking irrigation has proved to be one of the pivotal strength behind the progress and development of agricultural practices and successes globally. In spite of application of different agrichemicals such as pesticides and fertilizers, development and use of disease resistant and high yielding crop germplasms, rapid advancements in areas such as farm mechanization and use of high quality farm equipment and machineries; irrigation technology stands out as one of the most innovative and powerful means that has been reshaping and rewriting the history of modern agriculture.

That being said it is also important to note that irrigation changes the land surface drastically. Through the elaborate construction of dams and reservoirs and complex networks of canals and underground pipelines for channeling water from the source point to the farmer's fields, irrigation does have significant impacts on the local ecosystem and environment. If not managed scientifically and also in an environment friendly, green and sustainable fashion, development of irrigation could have possible negative impacts on the local wildlife populations. This could be in the form of habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, habitat modifications, increased competitions for premium hunting grounds with adequate supply of prey species, lack of easily accessible food sources, foraging and breeding opportunities. In addition pollution of water bodies through surface run off from agricultural fields and loss, rapid alterations of the local ecosystems, human encroachments into unexplored forested areas due to extension of agricultural lands into forest tracts as a result of rapid expansion of the irrigation facilities have all synergistically contributed towards loss of many native species across the globe including that of Canada. The rapid extermination of some ground dwelling native bird species in southern Alberta is attributed to irrigation development. Several irrigation systems and practices have been found to be detrimental to different wildlife species in different corners of the world.

However it is unfair to suggest that irrigation only had negative impacts on the local wildlife. Alberta Irrigation has been instrumental in developing water bodies and artificial habitat development sites across the province. Such initiatives have resulted in the development of watering, feeding, nesting and resting sites of a wide diversity of species in the province with increased availability of breeding locations and foraging grounds. Alberta Irrigation has been successful in generating several artificial water bodies across the thirteen irrigation districts and is estimated to have been providing nesting habitats for over 200 species of birds and other local wildlife. We need to remember that with the projected rise of global human populations to around 9 billion people by 2050 raises very important food security issues across the globe. The need for agricultural development through enhanced production of food crops is going to increase over the next few decades. There is no way in which the progress of the irrigation industry could be restricted or stalled at the brink of such monumental challenge towards food security. Hence it will be logical to find ways to accommodate both the expansion of the irrigation industry in a sustainable fashion and also find balance in its growth pattern so that it does not severely impact the local ecosystems.

A happy balance needs to be identified to sustain the upward growth of the irrigation industry within the carrying capacity of local ecosystems but also to protect the local environment and protecting local wildlife from extermination. It is important to realize that with the current demands on the agriculture and irrigation industries sustainable agriculture will be the most favored path to adapt. On one hand we will look for answering the global foods security issue through scientific management of irrigation expansions and on the other hand we should be committed to the protection of the local ecosystem and wildlife habitats across the globe.