SOIL AND WATER: BIOCHAR

By Alice LeBlanc for NWNL
(Edited by Alison Jones, NWNL Director)

This is the second blog in a NWNL series on how soil impacts water quality and availability.  Alice LeBlanc is an economist and independent consultant who lives in NYC.   For more than 25 years, she has worked in both corporate and NGO settings to promote market-based and land-use sector solutions to the problem of climate change.

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PAYING ATTENTION TO SOIL

Soil has an indisputably important role in producing much of the food we eat and supporting trees and vegetation that provide wood, fiber, habitat, natural beauty and other ecological services.  However, the direct relationship between healthy soil and clean, plentiful water is perhaps less known. Often overlooked is the role healthy soils play in ameliorating environmental problems that include water pollution, water scarcity and climate change.

Conventional agriculture uses inorganic fertilizers and pesticides, aggressive tillage, heavy machinery and wasteful irrigation. These practices often degrade soils by their reduction of soil carbon and compaction. Resulting erosion and chemical run-off pollutes waterways and groundwater. Further, their greenhouse gas emissions become significant contributors to climate change.  Although increasing and stabilizing food production, modern agricultural practices hurt our soil and water – two of the most basic elements essential to life on earth,

“Climate Smart Agriculture” (CSA) is a current buzzword of hope among environmentally-conscious agricultural experts, especially in developing countries. CSA combines cost-effective practices to increase soil health and crop productivity, use water more efficiently, decrease the use of inorganic fertilizers, and reduce or even sequester COand other greenhouse gases. CSA practices include low-tillage or no-tillage of soils; contour tillage; drip irrigation; terracing of sloping fields; and organic or custom-made (precision) fertilizer. Last in this list is biochar – a substance used successfully centuries ago by Amazon farmers.

P1020866.jpgKilns used for making biochar

BIOCHAR TODAY

Biochar is created by applying high heat to biomass (e.g. crop residues, otherwise burned or left to decay in the atmosphere) in enclosed, oxygen-free spaces.  This process, called pryolysis, differs from burning as it doesn’t use oxygen; produce combustion; or emit CO2.  Biochar can be produced anywhere inexpensively on a small scale by subsistence farmers with cook stoves or kilns, using on-hand materials.  It can also be produced on medium and larger commercial scales.

When used as a soil amendment, biochar alters the soil’s property, allowing it to retain more water and nutrients and enable some plants to more efficiently “fix” atmospheric nitrogen, thus attracting more microbes.  This improves plant growth and resilience.  Biochar’s effect is described as creating “microbe hotels” which draw microorganisms and bring additional carbon into the soil. To be most effective in increasing plant productivity, biochar can be mixed with organic fertilizer such as manure and ground animal bones.

P1020867.jpgBiochar production area

For the past year or so, I have been helping lay the foundation for the African Holistic Ecosystem Regeneration Initiative–HERI (a Swahili word for happiness).  HERI aims to scale up regenerative and climate smart agriculture, as well as better grazing practices across Africa. Our emphasis is specifically on smart use of biomass and nutrients, including using biochar as a soil amendment and planting of soil-enhancing trees with high-value crops, such as palm oil, coffee, cacao, shea butter, cashews and moringa.  This undertaking is being led by the International Biochar Initiative (IBI), the leading non-profit dedicated to the promotion of biochar research and commercialization.

BIOCHAR BENEFITS

The agricultural benefits of biochar as a soil amendment include increased food security and crop productivity, greenhouse gas reductions, increased resilience to climate change impacts, and poverty alleviation.

Many African soils are losing soil’s organic matter at dramatic rates, which has degraded soil fertility to an extent that threatens livelihoods of subsistence farmers in entire regions.  Biochar combined with organic fertilizer has been demonstrated in many small pilot projects in Africa and around the world to significantly increase soil productivity; retain more water; and sequester carbon, especially in highly weathered tropical soil.

P1020868.jpgMilkiyas Ahmed, Lecturer, Jimma University, College of Agriculture, holding crop residue to be turned into biochar

While results vary depending on materials used to make the biochar, soil and crop type, fertilizer materials and climatic conditions, biochar increases productivity on average by 25% in tropical regions – and up to 80% if nutrient-rich feedstocks are used to make the biochar. If the soil is of extremely poor quality to begin with, productivity increase due to biochar can be significantly greater, yielding 100% to 500% increases.

Another benefit is improved soil fertility when biochar use, combined with planting perennial tree crops, pulls more CO2 out of the air.  That carbon is then stored in increased amounts in above-ground biomass and root systems.  Those trees’ root systems then further contribute to soil health.  Additionally, the ability to sell perennial crops with higher yields, gained when using biochar and natural fertilizer, will generate higher revenues.

P1020873.jpgBins used to compost biochar with different fertilizer materials

Biochar systems, when properly designed, aregreenhouse-gas neutral.  They even become greenhouse-gas negative when they sequester carbon in woody biomass, roots and soils, and more microbes increase soil carbon.  As well, heat or combustible gases can be recovered from the biochar production process to generate usable renewable energy or electricity. In Africa, biochar produced with individual “cook stoves” has been used to generate heat as a clean, renewable energy for cooking.  When biochar is produced on a larger scale in big machines, a combustible, renewable gas can be fed into an electric generator to serve a micro-grid. Energy production from biochar production in some cases in Africa could generate revenues.

As well as direct benefits to agricultural production, biochar combined with agroforestry can improve water use efficiency; protect watersheds, water quality and water quantity; and decrease deforestation pressures.Without these measures, the outlook for subsistence farmers and food security in Africa is grim, especially in the face of increasing duration and frequency of droughts due to climate change and explosive African population growth.

P1020884.jpgPlots for testing the impact of different biochar plus fertilizer combinations

IN THE FIELD

On a recent trip to Ethiopia, I visited a biochar pilot project conducted at the University of Jimma in collaboration with Cornell University.  The project is evaluating the effectiveness of different formulas for co-composting biochar with natural fertilizers.  This work is being done in tandem with several dozen farmers incorporating biochar in their fields.

Jimma is on the Awetu River about 150 miles southwest of Addis Ababa, not far from the lakes of the Great Rift Valley.  It was my first visit to sub-Saharan Africa and my first visit to fields of small farmers there. Milkiyas Ahmed, a faculty member at the Agricultural College, gave me a tour of the biochar production machines.  I saw vats where the biochar co-composting is done, and plots where different crops are grown, with and without the biochar amendment.  In the trees around the experimental plots, black-and-white monkeys eyed the tender young plants.  A guard stood ready to scare them off if necessary.

P1020922.jpgA farmer in the village who has seen gains from biochar

We walked through the village of farmers with whom Milkiyas worked.  We visited fields of the farmer who set the highest bar for producing and using the biochar.  His method for making biochar in a hole in the ground was a very low-cost method indeed. The multi-cropped fields, containing a variety of perennial trees, enhanced a beautiful landscape.  There were two young boys swimming in a stream that ran through the fields on that warm Sunday afternoon.  One could only hope and expect that the water quality was safe and swimmable — which it could be with the right set of agricultural practices.

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All photos © Alice LeBlanc.

Soil and Water: An Intro

By Jillian Madocs, NWNL Research Intern
(Edited by Alison Jones, NWNL Director)

 

This blog begins a NWNL series on how soil impacts water quality and availability.  Our research intern Jillian Madocs is a Siena College senior studying  Environmental Studies & Community Development.  Her next NWNL focus will be on urban water issues. 

Jones_130521_IA_3205.jpgStewardship in Cedar Falls, Iowa – Mississippi River Basin

Soil is a critical element of our watersheds – and the hero of agriculture. As a holding pen for seeds and roots, soil gives life to the plants that dwell in it; provides nutrients to local flora; and is home to millions of organisms, from burrowing insects to grazing livestock. Now more than ever, the agricultural industry is booming. Yet we must carefully consider the impacts of today’s increasing demands by growing populations around the world for more food, water and farmland.

Over 70% of our freshwater usage is attributed to farming, per the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, et al.  As we face increasingly severe droughts, disappearing glaciers and groundwater depletion, farmers will need to find enough water to irrigate their crops and support livestock.  Soil quality and farming practices will play a highly critical role in ensuring water security for the future.  Farmers are critical to helping protect our finite water supplies, since they can creating greater water retention within our soils, plant more drought-tolerant crops, and change other agricultural practices that waste water.  

Jones_110729_NJ_0104.jpgCorn growing in New Jersey – Raritan River Basin

With proper care, soil can support farming with minimum degradation. To sustainably produce crop yields needed for future generations, soil must receive the same amount of scientific attention and protection as that given to crops or livestock. Taking over the remaining headwater forests that fill our rivers to create more fields and applying more chemicals are not sustainable answers.

To maintain prosperity, avoid famine and ensure long-term sustainability, the agricultural sector must reduce its consumption of water by reassessing its very foundation –  soil. Unfortunately, the pressure for greater profits and agricultural yields has led to unsustainable farming practices and water usage. Current practices also severely diminish biodiversity within the soil, as well as the variety of livestock and plants produced. As a result, farmers and consumers alike are suffering economic losses and our foods are less nutritious. Our global food security is being threatened.1

Jones_160211_K_0022.jpgPeter Kihui’s Kickstart pedal pump waters his veggies, Kenya – Mara River Basin

Endangerment of agronomy aside, it is clear these problems impact much larger systems –  the water cycle, global biodiversity, national economic health, and human livelihood. If unsustainable agricultural practices are continued, farmers will seriously limit their future options. Thus, farmers must study and reconsider their land-management and food production practices. Today’s preventive measures are tomorrow’s solutions.

A NWNL blog series this summer will share agricultural innovations that increase water retention in farming soils and promote sustainability.  Guest bloggers will contribute insights on how soil management and sustainable farming can protect the health of our rivers and availability of freshwater. These blogs will also discuss regenerative agriculture, no-till farming, biochar application, vegetation strips and and the use of rotating and cover crops. These practices and technologies are designed to improve water conservation, and simultaneously provide carbon sequestration, restoration of soil biodiversity and increased crop yields.

Jones_130519_IA_8444.jpgDairy cows on an Iowa farm – Mississippi River Basin

Topics to be addressed by future NWNL blogs:

Regenerative Agriculture: This holistic approach to farming maintains the integrity of the land, while  also promoting healthy soils, greater yields and environmental vitality.2 This organic approach can restore and enhance soil’s natural ability to store carbon.3 This can reverse the impacts of over-planting crops in diminishing natural carbon sequestration to minimal time for the soil to recuperate. Regenerative agriculture offers a multi-pronged solution to the ever-growing problems of climate change, water scarcity and increasing food needs.

No-Till Farming: This technique conserves nutrients in the soil without the use of chemicals. Traditional tilling repeatedly turns the earth at least 8 to 12 inches deep. Loosening the soil this way allows water and oxygen to reach difficult-to-access plant roots.4 However, tilling, or plowing, breaks up the soil structure, leaving a perforated top layer resting on a hard pan that becomes deeply compressed over time. As learned during the US Dust Bowl, that encourages wind erosion and loss of valuable soil. No-till farming prevents this by planting seeds a few inches into the soil and letting organic materials to do the work that a plow would otherwise do.5 By  not interfering with the soil prior to planting seeds, more nutrients and organic elements are available to the plants. Thus, chemical fertilizers need not be applied.

Jones_140517_ID_1824.jpgPlowing Idaho farmland – Snake River Basin

Biochar: For centuries, some of the world’s indigenous farmers understood that “fine-grained, highly-porous charcoal helps soils retain nutrients and water.”6 Carbon-rich and comprised of agricultural waste, biochar is highly resistant to decomposition, thus an ideal additive to soils. This product has many benefits from local to global scales. Biochar increases soil biodiversity, improves crop diversity, enhances food security in at-risk areas and increases water quality and quantity. Furthermore, biochar combats climate change by creating “pools” that sequester carbon in the soil from hundreds to thousands of years. Thus biochar has the capacity to make soil systems “carbon-negative” and ultimately help reduce excess carbon emissions into the atmosphere.7

Vegetation Strips:  Runoff pollution and soil loss can be controlled with buffering and filtering strips of land covered with permanent vegetation.8 These barriers prevent soil from being carried away, thereby reducing field, riverbank and shoreline erosion.  They also prevent excess sediment from collecting in bodies of water.  Vegetative strips also collect pollution, pathogens, and excessively-applied chemical nutrients before they reach and impair ditches, rivers, ponds and lakes.9 These filters are valuable water-quality improvement agents that maintain soil integrity, especially in regions with loess soil found in Iowa and Washington’s Palouse region. Dust Bowl analyses revealed the critical need for creating vegetation strips and trees as “windbreaks” to reduce erosion and drying winds.  Yet, modern agriculture  has removed many such “green” barriers, to gain a bit more acreage for planting their crops.  Hopefully this trend will be reversed.

Jones_030728_K_0339.jpgProtective vegetative strips in Kenya wheat fields – Mara River Basin

Crop Rotation: Even the simplest of vegetable gardens can be kept healthy through successive seasons if plants are switched around to different sections. Such rotation helps prevent disease and insect infestation, while also balancing and enhancing nutrients.10 For example, a plot with carrots, then cucumbers, and maybe lettuce planted in succeeding years deprive diseases and parasitic insects of long-term host sites. Additionally, soils dried out by particularly water-thirsty crops can regain their moisture balance with planned rotation.11

Cover Crops: Often called “green manure,” grasses, legumes, and herbs planted to control erosion can also increase moisture and nutrient content, improve soil structure, provide habitat for beneficial, bio-diverse organisms, and much more.12  Because vegetables so quickly deplete, dry out and otherwise stress the soil,13 restorative practices are essential to ensure the soil’s optimal performance.  Cover crops are used to improve soil health – and they also beautify gardens!14

Jones_170614_NE_3864-2.jpgPivot irrigation in Nebraska where it was invented – Platte River Basin

Agriculture is a major industry that ties together global needs for food and water. Thus, it is obvious that we must support the soil that produces our crops and consumes ¾ of our entire water supply.  Regenerative agricultural practices promise a balance between productive and healthy land, as well as between new technologies and common sense.  Robust soil means better produce, thriving organisms, less water consumption, and healthy watersheds. Without good soil, the food chain collapses and our ecosystems suffer. As more restorative farming practices are adopted, the future improves, especially for large-scale agriculture. This NWNL blog series will focus on how large- and small-scale agriculture can help solve global water scarcity by caring for the soil.

Jones_170616_NE_5022.jpgDouble rainbow over a Nebraska crop field – Missouri River Basin

Sources:

1. http://www.regenerationinternational.org/2015/10/16/linking-agricultural-biodiversity-and-food-security-the-valuable-role-of-agrobiodiversity-for-sustainable-agriculture/
2.  http://www.regenerationinternational.org/why-regenerative-agriculture/
3. http://rodaleinstitute.org/assets/RegenOrgAgricultureAndClimateChange_20140418.pdf
4.  https://www.motherearthnews.com/homesteading-and-livestock/no-till-farming-zmaz84zloeck
5.  https://morningchores.com/no-till-gardening/
6.  http://www.biochar-international.org/biochar
7. http://biochar.pbworks.com/w/page/9748043/FrontPage
8.  http://files.dnr.state.mn.us/publications/waters/buffer_strips.pdf
9. http://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/pdf/8195.pdf
10.  https://www.todayshomeowner.com/vegetable-garden-crop-rotation-made-easy/
11.  https://bonnieplants.com/library/rotating-vegetable-crops-for-garden-success/
12.  https://plants.usda.gov/about_cover_crops.html
13. http://covercrop.org/why-cover-crops
14.  https://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/cover-crops-improve-soil-zmaz09onzraw

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

The Great Giver: The Nile River

By Joannah Otis for No Water No Life (NWNL)

This is the 9th and final blog in the NWNL series on the Nile River in Egypt by NWNL Researcher Joannah Otis, a sophomore at Georgetown University. This essay addresses the human uses of the Nile River.  [NWNL expeditions have covered the Upper Nile, but due to current challenges for US photojournalists in Egypt and Sudan, NWNL is using literary and online resources to investigate the Lower Nile.]

The Nile River was vital to the lives and livelihoods of Ancient Egyptians and continues to play a significant role in modern Egyptian life. Egypt, as well as other countries in the Nile River Basin, rely entirely on this great river for fresh water. This reliance places great pressure on the river, especially Egypt’s extraction of the maximum amount of water it can according to international treaties.From aquaculture and fishing to drinking water and transport, Egypt uses the Nile for a wide variety of purposes. The Nile River also has considerable economic value since the Egyptian agriculture relies heavily on the Nile’s water. The human uses and values of the Nile River reflect its importance to the people who live along it.
Shaduf2

Illustration of a shaduf

A large portion of the water drawn from the Nile is for agriculture, a source of income for about 55% of the Egyptian population.2 In Ancient Egypt, farmers used a water-lifting device known as a “shaduf,” used to collect and disseminate water. This technology, developed around 1500 BCE, allowed farmers to irrigate their fields even during dry spells. It was so effective that the acreage of cultivable land expanded by 10-15%. Today, farmers use electric pumps and canals to transport water to their fields.3

Fish are a staple of the Egyptian diet and the fishing industry has thrived accordingly. However, unfortunately, overexploitation and high fishing pressures have stressed the natural fish populations. The river’s carrying capacity has been stretched to its limit and struggles to support the stocked fish. Such high stocking levels can result in poor water quality and an altered ecosystem.  To increase fish production, exotic species have been introduced to the Nile, but they have caused an imbalanced ecosystem and threatened native species. Illegal fishing continues to be a concern as well.4 

Compared to today, commercial fishing was of relative unimportance to the Ancient Egyptians. Although fish not consumed by the catcher were often sold for profit, trade of luxury goods and produce was a much more significant source of revenue. Nubia in particular was an important trading point as it provided ivory, slaves, incense, and gold, the riches that pharaohs and high society prized. Wadi al-Jarf was also a bustling trading town along the river. Since the Nile River flows to the north, boats could easily float downstream with their wares. At the same time, reliable southerly winds allowed vessels to sail upstream.5

Tile_from_the_palace_of_Ramesses_II;__Fish_in_a_Canal__MET_DT226146
Tile illustrating a fish in a canal c. 1279-1213 BCE Lower Egypt

For millions of years, the Nile River has continued steadily along its northward course. For thousands of years, it has given its people livelihoods and a precious source of water. Although excessive irrigation and overexploitation of fish threaten its flow, the Nile remains resilient. With proper care and environmental attention, the Nile can continue to thrive for years to come.

Sources

Turnbull, March. “Africa’s Mighty Dribble.” Africa Geographic. April 2005.
2 El-Nahrawy, Mohamed, A. “Country Pasture/Forage Resource Profile: Egypt.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2011. Web.
Postel, Sandra. “Egypt’s Nile Valley Basin Irrigation.” WaterHistory.org. 1999. Web.
4 “The Environmental Resources of the Nile Basin.” p 57-98. Web.
The ancient Egyptian economy.” The Saylor Foundation. Web.
All photos used based on fair use of Creative Commons and Public Domain.

Egyptian Irrigation Technology Through the Ages

By Joannah Otis, for No Water No Life (NWNL)

This is the 7th blog in the NWNL series on the Nile River in Egypt by NWNL Researcher Joannah Otis, a sophomore at Georgetown University. This essay addresses irrigation techniques used along the Nile River. [NWNL has completed documentary expeditions to the White and Blue Nile Rivers, but due to current challenges for photojournalists visiting Egypt and Sudan, NWNL is using literary and online resources to investigate the availability, quality and usage of the main stem of the Nile.]

For millennia, the Nile River has been vital to the livelihoods and lives of the Egyptian people. From agriculture and livestock to drinking and cleaning, Egypt relies on the Nile for almost all of its freshwater needs.1 Given the importance of this river, it has been necessary for the people living on its banks to understand and control its power. This necessity has manifested in the development and construction of technology designed to maximize agricultural outputs, both in present day Egypt and in Ancient Egypt.

800px-LevelBasinFloodIrrigationModern Basin Irrigation
Attribution: Jeff Vanuga

Beginning in 3000 BCE, irrigation systems became commonplace along the Nile River.Large, flat-bottomed basins and a series of canals were built to irrigate fields. Water was allowed to flow through the manmade ditches by way of simple gates. During the flooding season, water was directed onto the fields so the rich silt carried by the river’s flow could be adequately deposited. Flood water generally laid on the fields for forty to sixty days until is was drained off and sent on its way towards the Mediterranean.3 The earliest depiction of basin irrigation, and therefore the earliest evidence of it, dates from 3,100 BCE in a stone relief that shows one of the final predynastic kings digging a ditch in a grid network with a hoe. Today, one can still see canals snaking along the flanks of the Nile as farmers continue to utilize ancient irrigation techniques.4

Kairo_Nilometer_BW_1Cairo Nilometer
Attribution: Berthold Werner

In an attempt to regulate water distribution and calculate crop taxes, the Ancient Egyptians developed a structure known as the nilometer to measure flood waters. This stone well accessed via limestone steps was engraved with marks that officials used to determine taxation. Two of the best preserved nilometers are located in Cairo and on Elephantine Island at Aswan, although about two dozen have been found in total. The Cairo nilometer is composed of a large pit extending below the Nile’s water level with three tunnels connecting it to the river. Forty-five steps lead down to the well to allow for easy reading, which was determined by marks on a marble octagonal column with a corinthian capital in the center of the structure. Water levels were consistently recorded at this nilometer between 622 CE and 1845 CE.5 The Elephantine Island nilometer was also actively used to record water levels and was likely part of a temple complex dedicated to Hapi, the God of Nile flooding.6 Today, water distribution is regulated by the Aswan High Dam, which was officially opened in 1971.7

Elephantine Island Nilometer
Attribution: Olaf Tausch

The Nile River has been the lifeline of Egypt for thousands of years. In spite of modern technology and irrigation developments, it continues to have a life of its own. Just as the Ancient Egyptians worshipped its powers, so should we respect its ecosystems and natural tendencies because the success of the Nile River Basin is contingent on the health of the mighty Nile River.

Sources

1 Holmes, Martha; Maxwell, Gavin; Scoones, Tim. Nile. BBC Books. 2004.
“Nile River.” The Ancient Near East: An Encyclopedia for Students, edited by Ronald Wallenfels and Jack M. Sasson, vol. 3, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2000, pp. 137-138. World History in Context.
“Ancient Irrigation.” University of California Davis. 1999. Web. Accessed 16 October 2017.
4 Postel, Sandra. “Egypt’s Nile Valley Basin Irrigation.” WaterHistory.org. 1999. Web. Accessed 16 October 2017.
5 “The Nilometer in Cairo.” WaterHistory.org. Web. Accessed 16 October 2017.
6 Miller, Mark. “Ancient structure that measured the Nile for tax purposes uncovered in Egypt.” Ancient-Origins.net. 20 May 2016. Web. Accessed 16 October 2017.
7 Caputo, Robert. “Journey up the Nile.” National Geographic. p 582. May 1985.

 

Behind the wheel

US: Washington, Columbia River Basin, east side of Hanford Nuclear Site, wheel controlling level of irrigation canal
US: Washington, Columbia River Basin, east side of Hanford Nuclear Site, wheel controlling level of irrigation canal

– Posted by Jasmine Graf, NWNL Associate Director

NWNL Expedition Spotlights California Drought! 

 Chasing California’s Thirst
  March 14-26, 2014 Expedition

No Water No Life will visit the Sacramento Delta from San Francisco Bay to Antioch, the Sacramento River from the Delta north to the Butte Sink region, and the San Joaquin River from the Delta south to Bakersfield to document causes, impacts and solutions of California’s drought with photography, video and stakeholder interviews.

PROBLEMS:
– Increased Population and Growing Irrigation Demands with Finite Water Supplies
– Neither Consumers nor Regulators have sufficiently addressed The Value of Water

JUSTIFICATIONS:
– It affects us all!  CA supplies 50% of US veggies, fruits and nuts.
– No Water – No Irrigation – No Farms – No Food – No Jobs = Economic hit for all of the US!
– CA’s Drought Solutions can help solve the global problem of  “More people – Less available clean water.”

PURPOSE:
NWNL will document causes, impacts and solutions to CA’s Drought.
How will CA move from Water Scarcity to Water Sustainability?

cultivating the “scablands”

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