March 25, 2011

Only 7% of Brazilian Cropland is Irrigated

Brazilian farmers have made tremendous strides in recent decades in expanding their agricultural production, but their use of irrigation continues to be tentative. According to the National Water Agency (ANA), 4.5 million hectares of crops are irrigated in Brazil, which represents approximately7% of the 60 million hectares of cultivated cropland in Brazil. The agency estimates that there are 29 million hectares of land that could be irrigated in Brazil, but only 15% of the potential is actually irrigated.

Most of Brazil has a tropical wet-dry climate with a distinct rainy season and dry season. During the rainy season of course, irrigation would not be needed, but irrigation could be an essential tool in helping farmers to produce crops during the dry season. The weather during the dry season in central Brazil is quite warm (80's and 90's) with cloud free skies. The only thing missing for crop production is water. Currently, many farmers in the region plant cover crops or more drought resistant crops such as millet or sorghum during the dry season, but with the availability of irrigation water, higher value crops could be produced during the dry season.

In northeastern Brazil, irrigation could be used year round for crop production. The climate in northeastern Brazil is semi-arid with only a short and unpredictable rainy season. Irrigation is already in use in the region to produce high value crops such as tropical fruits that are exported to Europe and North America during the northern Hemisphere winter.

Irrigation can pay for itself relatively quickly by increasing the quantity and quality of the crops produced. It also can allow a farmer to produce crops in the off season when transportation costs are lower and crop prices are potentially higher.

The agricultural sector in Brazil is responsible for approximately 35% of Brazil's total water consumption, which is about average worldwide. A higher percentage of water is consumed by agriculture in countries that are more dependent on irrigation such as the U.S. and Israel. In the U.S., approximately 30% of the total cropland is irrigated.

In Brazil, most of the irrigation water is obtained from rivers and not groundwater. Of the water extracted from Brazilian rivers, 47% is used for agriculture and rural use. The Brazilian government is in the process of creating an agency called the Minister of National Irrigation whose duties will be to promote and regulate the use of irrigation in Brazil.