Advantages and disadvantages of surface irrigation

The term 'surface irrigation' refers to a broad class of irrigation methods in which water is distributed over the field by overland flow. A flow is introduced at one edge of the field and covers the field gradually. The rate of coverage (advance) is dependent almost entirely on the differences between the discharge onto the field and the accumulating infiltration into the soil. Secondary factors include field slope, surface roughness, and the geometry or shape of the flow cross-section.

The practice of surface irrigation is thousands of years old. It collectively represents perhaps as much as 95 percent of common irrigation activity today. The first water supplies were developed from stream or river flows onto the adjacent flood plain through simple check-dams and a canal to distribute water to various locations where farmers could then allocate a portion of the flow to their fields. The low-lying soils served by these diversions were typically high in clay and silt content and tended to be most fertile. The land slope was normally small because of the structure of the flood plain itself.

With the advent of modern equipment for moving earth and pumping water, surface irrigation systems were extended to upland areas and lands quite separate from the flood plain of local rivers and streams. These lands tend to have more variable soils and topographies, are usually better drained, and may be naturally less fertile. Thus, these lands usually require greater attention to design and operation.


Surface irrigation offers a number of important advantages at both the farm and project level. Because it is so widely utilized, local irrigators generally have at least minimal understanding of how to operate and maintain the system. In addition, surface systems are often more acceptable to agriculturalists who appreciate the effects of water shortage on crop yields since it appears easier to apply the depths required to refill the root zone.

The second advantage of surface irrigation is that these systems can be developed at the farm level with minimal capital investment. The control and regulation structures are simple, durable and easily constructed with inexpensive and readily-available materials like wood, concrete, brick and mortar, etc. Further, the essential structural elements are located at the edges of the fields which facilitates operation and maintenance activities. The major capital expense of the surface system is generally associated with land grading, but if the topography is not too undulating, these costs are not great. Recent developments in surface irrigation technology have largely overcome the irrigation efficiency advantage of sprinkler and trickle systems. An array of automating devices roughly equates labour requirements. The major trade-off between surface and pressurized methods lies in the relative costs of land levelling for effective gravity distribution and energy for pressurization. Energy requirements for surface irrigation systems come from gravity. This is a significant advantage in today's economy.

Another advantage of surface systems is that they are less affected by climatic and water quality characteristics. Even moderate winds can seriously reduce the effectiveness of sprinkler systems. Sediments and other debris reduce the effectiveness of trickle systems but may actually aid the performance of the surface systems. Salinity is less of a problem under surface irrigation than either of these pressurized systems.

There are other advantages specific to individual regions that might be mentioned. Surface systems are better able to utilize water supplies that are available less frequently, more uncertain, and more variable in rate and duration. The gravity flow system is a highly flexible, relatively easily-managed method of irrigation.


There is one disadvantage of surface irrigation that confronts every designer and irrigator. The soil which must be used to convey the water over the field has properties that are highly varied both spatially and temporally. They become almost undefinable except immediately preceding the watering or during it. This creates an engineering problem in which at least two of the primary design variables, discharge and time of application, must be estimated not only at the field layout stage but also judged by the irrigator prior to the initiation of every surface irrigation event. Thus while it is possible for the new generation of surface irrigation methods to be attractive alternatives to sprinkler and trickle systems, their associated design and management practices are much more difficult to define and implement.

Although they need not be, surface irrigation systems are typically less efficient in applying water than either sprinkler or trickle systems. Many are situated on lower lands with heavier soils and, therefore, tend to be more affected by waterlogging and soil salinity if adequate drainage is not provided. The need to use the field surface as a conveyance and distribution facility requires that fields be well graded if possible. Land levelling costs can be high so the surface irrigation practice tends to be limited to land already having small, even slopes.

Surface systems tend to be labour-intensive. This labour need not be overly skilled. But to achieve high efficiencies the irrigation practices imposed by the irrigator must be carefully implemented. The progress of the water over the field must be monitored in larger fields and good judgement is required to terminate the inflow at the appropriate time. A consequence of poor judgement or design is poor efficiency.

One sometimes important disadvantage of surface irrigation methods is the difficulty in applying light, frequent irrigations early and late in the growing season of several crops. For example, in heavy calcareous soils where crust formation after the first irrigation and prior to the germination of crops, a light irrigation to soften the crust would improve yields substantially. Under surface irrigation systems this may be unfeasible or impractical as either the supply to the field is not readily available or the minimum depths applied would be too great.


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