Irrigated agriculture in Spain and most of the Mediterranean area was introduced since ancient times and it has been improved through the long farmer' experience. Crops yields under irrigation are indeed quite high. However, irrigation techniques have been kept in the same way for centuries in many Mediterranean countries. Inefficient flooding irrigation systems, for instance, is still the most commonly found in many areas of Spain (Neira et al., 2005) and other Mediterranean countries.
Irrigation is expensive, but assures the farmer productions and keeps rural population in the countryside. It has been shown that farm profitability in Europe is lower than that reported in industrial or technical business. If farming is not profitable then existing farmers will cease their activities, and young people may not be attracted into agriculture. This will mean the long-term decline of the industry and of rural areas. Actually, one of the most important constraints that face European countryside is its continuous depopulation. Most farms are small businesses, often family-run. They are an important local employer in many rural regions and major players in the rural world. Farmers play a positive role in the maintenance of the countryside and the environment by working for secure and profitable futures for themselves and their families. Therefore, to keep good living standards in the European countryside is an important concern of EU authorities, as well as national governs.
A quite large irrigation modernisation is being conducted in Spain (Beceiro, 2003), aimed to replace flooding by sprinkler and other more-efficient techniques with governmental aids. The Spanish program aimed to introduce new engineering irrigation infrastructures in the national agriculture, Plan Nacional de Regadíos (MAPA, 2005), is carried out by the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture. The program has been recently revised and its goals comprised not only to increment irrigated areas, but to significantly improve water savings and to avoid groundwater pollution. This kind of effort is in accordance with the Lisbon Strategy and the goals of the EU Commission of Agriculture, addressed to improve farmer's income, to make more competitive their agricultural production and to meet the EU environmental requirements (EU, 2005; Fischer, 2005).
Irrigation modernisations efforts have been made in non-European Mediterranean countries also, as Egypt. However, there is still a big difference in irrigated agricultural production between European and non-European Mediterranean countries. As can be seen in Figure 1, shown below, rainfed crop production, as wheat, is similar in all the compared countries. However, the yields of a usually irrigated crop, as maize, are much larger in European countries than in non-European Mediterranean countries. The above information is a national average; therefore it includes also non-irrigated maize, as well as irrigated wheat. Nevertheless, the figure depicts clearly the mean yields at each country. Maize yields of the European and non-European Mediterranean countries show a considerable difference. This could be mainly due to the large new engineering irrigation infrastructures, which have been available in European Mediterranean countries since the last 20 years.
Figure 1: Average yields in 2004 in several Mediterranean countries, according to FAOSTAT data.
Furthermore, Figure 2 depicts the absolute difference in Maize yields (in T/ha) and production (in BT) between Spain and Egypt from 1990 to 2004, following the same FAOSTAT (2005) data. Despite total Egyptian production is higher than that of Spain, the Spanish yields are not only higher than the corresponding Egyptian yields, but their yield differences have been linearly incremented during the last 15 years.
The yield differences between Spain and the European Mediterranean countries as compared to Non-European Mediterranean countries can be due to many reasons, but indeed the new engineering irrigation infrastructures that has been introduced in the European Mediterranean countries, as Spain, during the last 20 years (MAPA, 2005) has a notable influence in this yearly yield increment.
Despite the infrastructures investments in Spain and other European countries, irrigation is still very expensive at the world scale. Water could be not enough under the future-enhanced droughts conditions, particularly considering third-world population rise. However, irrigation must not only been kept, but also enlarged in order to feed the foreseen world population. This contradiction has been pointed out as important concern during the 19th Congress of the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage (ICID), held in Beijing recently. The ICI Congress focused on the theme of "Use of Water and Land for Food Security and Environmental Sustainability" and they pointed out that: the key to increase future food production lies in expansion of irrigated and drained lands where potential exists; in better water and land management in existing irrigated and drained areas; and in increase in water use efficiency and land productivity, in the Beijing ICID declaration.
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