Irrigated agriculture is under increasing pressure as water demand from other users rises. What is not always realised though is the wider threat this poses to the sustainability of the rural economy. In East Anglia alone irrigated agriculture provides employment for some 50,000 people and contributes £3 billion annually to the region’s economy. If this industry is to survive it is vital that farmers and growers continue to make their case for a fair share of the nation’s water resource. Doing this requires a concerted effort. Abstractor groups can help.

The value of irrigation

Agriculture is at the bottom of the heap when it comes to water allocation and, during times of scarcity, it is other users that take precedence. Coupled with changes in catchment abstraction management (CAMS), most farmers are now reluctant to invest for the long-term in irrigation infrastructure. Climate change is likely to exacerbate this situation, with hotter drier summers reducing water availability and increasing water demand.

All this threatens irrigated agriculture and its valuable contribution to the rural economy. In East Anglia some 1,000 farms, large and small, depend on irrigation to supply high quality produce to the UK market – some 35 per cent of potatoes and 25 per cent of vegetables – all grown without EU subsidy support. Beyond the farm gate many local businesses service the agri-food industry.

A coordinated voice

So why is this case not heard? The problem is that irrigated agriculture lacks a coordinated and coherent voice. Individual farmers speak out about the importance of water to their business as does the UK Irrigation Association and the NFU – an example being their presentation of evidence to the recent House of Lords Select Committee on Water abstractor groups – why we need them water management in the UK. These efforts, though laudable, are too fragmented and thus have limited impact.

Abstractor groups could make the difference. Experience in other countries has shown that encouraging farmers and growers to form abstractor groups is one of the most effective ways of sustaining and improving irrigated agriculture. They provide a collective and supportive voice for irrigation.

At least three abstractor groups are already operating in East Anglia and are working well. They formed in response to threats of significant water shortages and they began lobbying the regulator and other stakeholders about the importance of irrigation – something that individuals alone could not do easily.

They then developed communication channels between farmers and the regulator to negotiate how best to use limited water resources in their catchment. So much so that the drought this last summer was described by one farmer as more of a problem to be dealt with rather than a crisis.

There is scope for up to eight abstractor groups to evolve in East Anglia aligned with the CAMS catchments. So should we be encouraging others to form abstractor groups and to follow their example?

How do we do it?

The theory for setting up new groups is relatively straightforward. First there is a need to review existing groups to see what we can learn from their successes and failures, their objectives, methods of operation and how they have performed. Areas of critical water stress and the spatial distribution of abstractors also need to be identified as well as the drivers and constraints for setting up new groups. The next step would be to identify the places where groups are most needed and are most likely to succeed as well as the support they will need to get started.

But setting out the theory of what to do is one thing; establishing new sustainable groups in practice is another. Some argue that irrigators should organise themselves as they are the main beneficiaries. The existing groups formed without outside help so why not just leave it to the market? This may be an option for some large enterprises but most small farming businesses are unlikely to be able to do this alone. Irrigation is already a high risk investment because of the uncertainties of abstraction licence reviews and the possibility of policy changes that could switch water away from agriculture to domestic and environmental use. Under such circumstances individuals are unlikely to have the time and resources to bring the interested parties together and to make the investments needed for the future, particularly if there is no immediate threat of water shortages to act as an incentive.

However, waiting until there is a water crisis is not a good way to proceed either. New organisations are difficult to set up and sustain and it takes time, sometimes years, for them to mature into useful active bodies. We have already had some warning signs this last summer of the challenges ahead and so the sooner groups are set up the better we will be able to cope with future crises.

The fact is farmers can see how useful abstractor groups can be but they are unlikely to be able to set them up on their own. One option is to seek outside help. This could come from a regional development agency that has the foresight to recognise the importance of water to the future of many rural livelihoods and to see that abstractor groups are a strategic means of ensuring that irrigated agriculture has a strong coordinated voice and gets its fair share of a limited resource.