Water: actions and challenges for efficient use

The sugar sector is concerned with promoting initiatives and technologies among mills and growers for efficient management of natural resources. However, there are still tasks to be done and it is everyone's responsibility to move towards a more sustainable agribusiness. Information letter It shows you where we are and where we are going in water management.

More than two decades ago, the sugar sector applied an average of 12 irrigations per year in the cultivation of sugarcane. At that time, most of the cane growers used to open gaps in the irrigation ditch so that the water advanced over the furrows of the land and it flowed by gravity for its distribution along the fate.

But in 1992 and 1993 the intense summer, which led to an energy rationing in the country, forced many suppliers and mills to rethink their forms of irrigation. With Cenicaña's support, irrigation alternatives were investigated and tested and systems were developed to control the amount of water applied.

The efforts yielded results and, in fact, today there are between four and six irrigations per year; But there is still much to do, because it is an increasingly scarce resource and with greater demand. In recent years, extreme conditions have arisen in our region, either due to prolonged periods of abundant rainfall or due to the occurrence of periods with water deficits, which cause considerable decreases in cane production.

“In the case of water deficit, the water sources available for irrigation are depleted, and the situation is more critical in the surface sources that suffer a reduction of 20% -70%. In underground sources the decrease in flows is 15% -30%, as confirmed by the decrease in pumping levels ”, explains José Ricardo Cruz, soil and water engineer at Cenicaña.

If we add to this that, according to the United Nations Agriculture Organization, FAO, world consumption of water for agricultural purposes will increase by 19% between now and 2050, and that worldwide alarms were raised by the effects of climate change, it has been an imperative for the sugar cane sector to look beyond irrigation technologies to make adequate use of water. As a response to this situation, in 2010 the Water Table was created, a formal space for industry professionals, knowledgeable about the subject, to comprehensively define best practices for the efficient use of natural resources in both agricultural and agricultural productive activities. industrial.

According to Claudia Calero, director of Social and Environmental Management of Asocaña, among the many actions carried out by the Board there are two very important achievements: getting all the actors involved to agree to monitor the sustainability of the resource and unite efforts with the environmental authorities of the region to do teamwork.

As a result of this effort, it was defined that growers and mills should measure the water consumption per hectare in each irrigation applied and calculate the consumption per ton of sugarcane. Likewise, the sector committed itself to the implementation of the water balance as a fundamental tool for the technical programming of the irrigation and it was achieved that the mills contemplated the possibility of having an internal structure for the administration of water. Today in more than 60% of these there is a work team dedicated to the issues of the Table.

On the other hand, the Water Table supports the CVC so that the sugarcane growers participate in the flood management model in the plain of the Cauca river valley. This project was started by the regional entity after the consequences of the winter waves of 2010 and 2011. The study area covers approximately 54 thousand hectares, along the right and left banks of the river, from Santander de Quilichao (Cauca) to La Virginia (Risaralda). 

The participation of the growers includes the preparation of proposals for the management of the ecosystems associated with the Cauca River, the zoning of wetlands in the upper basin and socio-economic projections on the effect of the floods. To advance in all of the above, it was agreed to organize an operating committee with mill leaders and to hold a series of meetings with the cane growers, which is currently being convened.

The Water for Life and Sustainability Fund manages resources to invest in the basins through social and environmental projects.

The pending tasks

Although the efforts have been great and many achievements have been made, the task is not yet complete. To fulfill the purpose of the Roundtable of monitoring consumption to define strategies, the data from the indicators for measuring water use by the sector must come from approved methodologies and be supplied within the established deadlines. 

Today this instance is advancing in the definition of these methodologies, but it is required above all that sugar mills and growers commit to assume the proposed data collection methods and to comply with the agreed dates.

On the other hand, thanks to the advantages offered by the water balance, until 2012 this technology was used in 63% of the planted area, the goal is that by 2015 it will be implemented in 75% of the area. To promote its adoption, Cenicaña recommended that a professional be commissioned in the sugar mills to measure the luck of their suppliers. In addition, the technical assistants of the mills that participate in the Technical Assistance Program, PAT, will acquire the necessary skills to train in this technology.

"Quite possibly there is a lack of knowledge about the benefits of water balance in economic and environmental matters. For this reason, we need the mills to accompany the suppliers and that the suppliers allow themselves to be accompanied, ”says Claudia Calero. 

It is evident that the sector has contributed with its management and technologies to a more efficient use of resources such as water, however, there will always be more to do. The investigations that are carried out in the varietal issue and in the factory processes are some of those bets for the medium and long term, but in the meantime, it is in everyone's hands that the sugar sector is consolidated as a model of sustainability and water It has been a good start. 

Betting for the future

The research also advances in the search for options so that the Colombian sugar agribusiness is increasingly sustainable. 

Through genetic improvement and biotechnology, work is being carried out on the development of varieties so that the sugarcane plant uses water more efficiently when its availability is limited, while maintaining high productivity.

As a result of the investigations, an association was established between the efficient use of water and certain physiological variables of the plant. The varieties CC 00-3771, Co 421, RB 73-2223 and SP 71-6949 showed a high activity of these variables during the stress period.

Given this, a group of varieties was formed, mainly genotypes produced by Cenicaña, to be used in crosses and obtain new varieties.

These investigations are a first stage in the process that will lead to studies to identify genes that control the efficient use of water.

In the factories of the sugar industry, efforts are also made towards sustainability, since it is confirmed that about 20% of the water present in the cane can be reused in the sugar production process.

One of the investigations carried out by Cenicaña with pilot plants confirmed that with a centralized collection, treatment and distribution system, the condensed water flow of the heating and manufacturing processes can be better exploited. In another project, a computational tool was used to model the distribution of water through pipes, which allowed for a 10% increase in the liquid pressure available for the condensers. In this way the losses of the natural resource are reduced and the energy in the capacitors is better used.  

Although the investigations have not been concluded, the partial results have led the pilot mills to adopt some measures to improve the water consumption and recirculation systems in their factories.

Basin sustainability

Responsible use of water is not only working on farms, but also in watersheds. For this reason, the Water for Life and Sustainability Fund, led by Asocaña, manages resources to invest in the basins through social and environmental projects. The initiatives are carried out by the community, with the leadership and support of the watershed user associations and indigenous councils.

The main actions co-financed through the Fund are: isolation of water sources, streams and relicts of native forests; establishment of modules for food security; environmental training and awareness processes for the community; and strengthening organizations. Until 2012, it had contributed to the restoration and conservation of 3854 hectares in the 27 municipalities where the Fund has coverage.

To advance in this work, it is necessary to achieve a closer relationship between suppliers, mills and user associations of the basins. 

According to Pedro Moreno, director of the Water for Life and Sustainability Fund, “not just paying the CVC is being fulfilled; there is a responsibility that goes beyond legality. For this reason, if we really want the business to be sustainable, we must actively participate in processes such as those carried out by the basin associations ”. 

According to Lola María Arias, executive director of Asofrayle, of the 214 water users in the Frayle river basin, only 30 are contributors to the Association, and similar situations occur in the other 15 associations that operate in the region. What's more, it ensures that the contributions that are required are sometimes not even financial. "There are cases in which we need them to make their farms available to do reforestation work," he says. 

Reasons to measure

  • Hydric balance

The implementation of this technology in one hectare would mean a saving of approximately 450 m3 of water per crop cycle. In other words, the use of this system in a plot of one hundred hectares would reduce costs by up to approximately $ 45,000,000 (at 2013 values). 

  • Administrative control of irrigation

This system allows taking corrective measures and implementing programs for the adaptation and construction of works, and training of personnel. With this methodology, up to 200 m3 of water per hectare can be saved per irrigation, that is, 1000 m3 per year (5 irrigations) or $ 100,000 per year per hectare, approximately (at 2013 values).

  • Water measurement system with continuous recording  

Since 2010, the CVC requires water measurement with continuous registration to the users of the basins that request that the collection of the rate be made according to the water actually collected.

To supply that need, Cenicaña and the Universidad del Valle developed a technological proposal to measure the flows in open channels, complying with the requirements of the environmental authority. The technology also allows a reduction of up to 200 m3 per hectare per irrigation event. The implementation of the system has an approximate cost of $ 6,000,000, depending on the flow.

The union of Cenicaña and students of the Universidad del Valle was the seedbed of the company Links Ingeniería, which today offers measurement alternatives for the sugar agribusiness.

More information: mesadelagua@cenicana.org 

Administrative control of irrigation.

“Until 1992 we irrigated the crop with the conventional system by gravity. That year we started irrigation by pipes with windows and immediately the amount of water used decreased by 54%. Previously, around 3000 m3 / ha were consumed and we went to 1250 m3/he has. We also had a significant increase in irrigated area per day: from one and a half hectares we increased to an average of five hectares per day.

Three years ago, following the recommendation of Cenicaña, we started irrigation with reduced flow using the infrastructure of the pipe with windows. Previously, we opened 40 or 50 windows at the same time with a flow rate of 5 to 6 liters per second. Today we open between 300 and 400 windows with a flow rate of 0.35 l / s per window. We use the same amount of water, with other additional benefits: more time for the sprinkler to carry out other tasks; erosion was removed; water slows down and higher soil moisture is guaranteed; the frequency of irrigation was increased when passing from 25 and 30 days to 35 and 40; and water wastage in alleys was eliminated.

Today the people in charge of irrigation manage water more easily and efficiently and are aware of its importance. By changing the irrigation system, costs were reduced by 45%, and productivity has been maintained and the number of cuts has increased. ”

Guido Mauricio Lopez
Cane supplier.



"I had been using conventional irrigation, but now I am with controlled irrigation (reduced flow) and the system for applying fertilizer in an area of ​​25 hectares with extraordinary results: I have had less water consumption, I am conserving the soils because there is no erosion and more efficiencies are achieved compared to the other fertilization system. In addition, I had an increase of 20 tons per hectare compared to the control that I had with conventional irrigation. In other words, the investment in this system is practically paid for in one harvest. For hillside areas, which are so susceptible to erosion, I would definitely recommend these irrigation technologies that have brought me countless benefits ”.

Ramiro Escobar placeholder image
Cane supplier.



3 irrigation technologies to be more efficient

1. Reduced flow: the system is a good choice for foothills and flat areas with fine textured soils, where research shows that:

  • With flow rates between 0.2-0.4 liters per second per row, the water consumption is 600-900 cubic meters per hectare and the efficiency of the application in alternate row can reach up to 63%. In conventional irrigation 3-4 l / s are used per row, 1200-1500 m3 / ha are consumed, with application efficiencies between 40% and 60%.
  • Driving losses are minimized.
  • The required materials are low cost and easy to obtain and manage by farmers. The investment ranges from $ 1,500,000 to $ 1,800,000 per hectare.
  • The applied flows are not erosive. 
  • The system is not recommended in thick textured soils due to the difficulty in the advance of the water in the furrows. 

2. Low flow-drip combination: the low flow-drip combination is a promising technology in areas with low water availability and in fine soils with coarse textured inclusions. Preliminary research results show that:

  • It allows the timely application of the crop's water requirements, reaching efficiencies of more than 90%.
  • Conduction water losses are minimized.
  • The investment ranges from $ 3,000,000 to $ 7,000,000 per hectare, depending on the installed ratio of reduced flow-drip.
  • It is necessary to have a water filtering system to avoid clogging of the drippers.

3. Fertigation: drip irrigation and reduced flow technologies can be used separately or in combination to apply fertilizers in solution to the crop. Experimentally with fertigation with reduced flow it has been found that:

  • The dose of fertilizer applied to the soil can be reduced by up to 40%, without affecting production.
  • With equal doses of fertilizer, net income has been obtained higher than liquid fertilization and manual application.

To consult

The Technical Recommendations Guide (GRT) for agronomic management of the crop according to the agro-ecological zones of its fate is available at www.cenicana.org

 Suggested readings

  •  Use and reuse of water in the sugar manufacturing process. Proceedings of the VIII Congress of the Association of Sugar Technicians of Latin America and the Caribbean. Cali, September 12 to 14, 2012. ATALAC-TECNICAÑA, Cali, Vol. 2. p 185 - 193.
  • Water Funds: conserving green infrastructure. Design, Creation and Operation Guide. Latin American Alliance of Water Funds. The Nature Conservancy, Femsa Foundation and IDB. 


By Xavier Carbonell, director of the Agronomy Program - Cenicaña; Y Ricardo Cruz, soil and water engineer - Cenicaña.

The sugarcane agribusiness in Colombia is a model sector in the efficient use of water. We have irrigation technologies and measurement of water resources that allow us to face the climatic variability that is impacting agriculture in the world and we also have important initiatives to ensure the conservation of the basins from which we source.

But have we taken advantage of all that potential?

Although the adoption of technology to make better use of water is increasing by mills and growers, there is still a gap to work on. The water balance, for example, is used today in 63% of the total area planted with sugar cane. This figure is certainly remarkable, but it could be increased only with commitment and will.

Improving this trend should be our fundamental purpose in order to be more sustainable and even profitable, since Cenicaña evaluations have confirmed that with the adoption of irrigation technologies, the volume of water used per cycle can be reduced by up to 50% cultivation, which translates into lower costs; while in excess conditions, the use of drainage systems would counteract a drop in production of up to 40 tons per hectare.

Regarding our commitment to the conservation of water sources, it is evident that we have been leaders in their protection with the collaboration of communities and watershed user associations (The Water for Life and Sustainability Fund) But that should not be enough. We must mark public policies, similar to the Conpes of the Cauca River, for other basins that demand equal attention for their contribution to agribusiness and the region in general.

Hopefully the consequences of the winter waves of 2010 and 2011, and the prolonged drought of 2012, which are still being felt, will serve as a reflection to increase our efforts and enhance everything we have in order to contribute to the conservation of resources. natural of the geographical valley of the Cauca river and continue to be a privileged region for the cultivation of sugarcane.

Information letter
Year 1 / Number 2 / August 2013

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