Potential impacts of water harvesting and ecological sanitation on crop yield, evaporation and river flow regimes in the Thukela River basin, South Africa

This scientific article was published in May 2011 in the Agricultural Water Management journal during my Ph.D. at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich). I wrote it together with colleagues at Eawag, the Alberta Water Research Institute, the Stockholm Environment Institute and the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

 

Abstract

In this study we explore the potential impacts of two strategies, namely in situ water harvesting (in situ WH) and fertilisation with stored human urine (Ecosan), to increase the water and nutrient availability in rain-fed smallholder agriculture in South Africa's Thukela River basin (29,000 km2). We use the soil and water assessment tool (SWAT) to simulate potential impacts on smallholder maize yields, river flow regimes, plant transpiration, and soil and canopy evaporation during 1997–2006. Based on the results, the impacts on maize yields are likely to be small with in situ WH (median change: 0%) but significant with Ecosan (median increase: 30%). The primary causes for these effects are high nitrogen stress on crop growth, and low or untimed soil moisture enhancement with in situ WH. However, the impacts vary significantly in time and space, occasionally resulting in yield increases of up to 40% with in situ WH. Soil fertility improvements primarily increase yield magnitudes, whereas soil moisture enhancements reduce spatial yield variability. Ecosan significantly improves the productivity of the evaporative fluxes by increasing transpiration (median: 2.8%, 4.7 mm season−1) and reducing soil and canopy evaporation (median: −1.7%, −4.5 mm season−1). In situ WH does not generally affect the river flow regimes. Occasionally, significant regime changes occur due to enhanced lateral and shallow aquifer return flows. This leads to higher risks of flooding in some areas, but also to enhanced low flows, which help sustain aquatic ecosystems in the basin.

Citation

Andersson, Jafet C. M., Zehnder, A. J. B., Rockström, J., and Yang, H. (2009). Potential impacts of water harvesting and ecological sanitation on crop yield, evaporation and river flow regimes in the Thukela River basin, South Africa. Agricultural Water Management, Vol. 98, Iss. 7, pp. 1113-1124, doi:10.1016/j.agwat.2011.02.004

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