In Uzbekistan, most agricultural land is irrigated with water pumped from two rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya. This pumping consumes 20% of the country's power, and to keep power affordable for farmers and other users, the government sinks USD 450 million into energy subsidies every year. Research by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) has demonstrated an alternative, and led the government to redirect some subsidies towards more efficient irrigation that saves water and energy.
The researchers determined the performance of different irrigation methods under the conditions of the Aral Sea Basin, and found that current practices are energy-inefficient and create return flow, waterlogging and salinity problems. Drip irrigation, however, achieved a 30% saving in water – and therefore pumping energy – while improving yields.
The analysis was a robust application of the water-energy-food nexus concept, showing how on-farm choices could lead to multiple benefits. Research in Karshi Steppe indicated that optimized irrigation could save half a trillion liters of water, spare 259 gigawatt-hours of electricity, and cut 122,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
IWMI shared these results at a workshop with Uzbekistan's presidential administration and Ministries of Water Resources and Economy. The researchers' recommendations – that the government shift subsidies towards water saving technologies, while seeking to build institutions and create incentives for water and energy savings – were taken to heart.
The government quickly adopted a new strategy to expand drip irrigation: they would pay for up to half the costs of setting up systems, and farmers who did so would be exempt from land taxes for five years. The initial target was to roll out water saving technologies on more than 250,000 hectares of land between 2019 and 2022, and this was soon upped to an even more ambitious 450,000 hectares.
The embrace of the research was helped by the widespread collaboration that went into it. This included the United States Agency for International Development, National Academy of Sciences, Department of Agriculture, Uzbekistan's Uzgip Institute, and the Amu-Kashkadarya Basin Irrigation System Authority and Information Analytical Center.
The program launched with a presidential resolution in 2020, receiving national television attention. As farmers respond and try out drip irrigation, the shift in subsidies should enable better livelihoods, less competition for resources, and a healthier balance in the water-energy-food nexus.