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Water Dynamics in Plant Production

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The source of life is water. Life began in the oceans, which represent the largest stock of water on Earth. Much less water is stored below the land surface in the form of fresh groundwater, amounting to not quite 0.8% of the earth’s total water reserves, while lakes and rivers combined only contribute a further 0.007%. Therefore terrestrial life depends primarily on the global water cycle. This cycle makes the land productive by the infusion of fresh water precipitation, originating from the salt water of the oceans. However, in many regions the precipitation does not provide a sufficient or reliable source for the sustained presence of plants and animals. In fact, in all regions, precipitation proves to be highly variable in time and space, and human activities that have led to global warming have also increased the variability and intensity of rainfall.

Assimilation and biomass production in natural plant communities are intimately linked to water use through transpiration. The same is true for agricultural crops. However, extreme weather events like drought and torrential storms threaten agricultural enterprises and the well-being of an ever increasing world population. Three-quarters of the renewable fresh water resources used by mankind are consumed in irrigated agriculture, but such practices are at risk in several regions for varying reasons. These include climate change, weather variability, decline in groundwater reserves owing to over-utilization, and the degradation of soil and water quality. The 21st century has been referred to as the ‘century of water’. At the world food summit held in Rome in 1996, water was identified as the major threat to food security. The global water crisis is predicted to intensify within the coming decades. Areas of acute water shortage are expected to spread, particularly to large regions of Africa and the Middle East.

In an age characterized by an increasing demand for fresh water and at the same time by an actual decline in reliable water resources for both rainfed and irrigated agriculture, conservation of water is essential. Agricultural water management must aim to eliminate unproductive water losses and optimize transpirational water use. The goal is to achieve optimum economical yields per unit of water used without compromising the environment. The development of an understanding how to approach such a goal is a central theme of this book.
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