Editorial: The cost of water in our lives

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We were happy to hear the newly-appointed Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Barbuda Affairs, Dean Jonas, say that he is making the reduction of the cost of water available to farmers a top priority.  For years, farmers have cried out for assistance in this area, and for as many years they have been either ignored or given empty promises.  As Dean Jonas is known to be a focused man, we put some faith in his words and eagerly look forward to seeing how he handles his agricultural portfolio.  Historically, this has not been the most prized portfolio, but it happens to be one of the most important.
Agriculture is the key to greater food security for our bit of paradise.  Our history shows that we have had a lull in the development of the farming industry as our focus moved to what we considered to be the more lucrative tourism industry.  We essentially abandoned the fields and our livestock in search of a pot of goal at the end of the rainbow.  Decades later, we are seeing the error of that decision to abandon our farms and we are slowly finding our way back.
Farming technologies have moved on, but there are still some basics that are essential to crops and livestock – water and nutrition.  If we can address those two facets of the agricultural process, we will be well-suited to take advantage of any of the advances in technologies surrounding agriculture.  Failure to adequately address these issues will forever leave us stationary, and food security will be nothing more than two unattainable words uttered in workshops attended by frustrated farmers.
Minister Jonas gave some insight into how far we have to move the bar in terms of the cost of water for farmers.  He stated that farmers are currently receiving water at a subsidised cost of $21 per 1,000 gallons, however that cost is still too high to get us where we need to be.  Specifically, he is referring to the business of farming where water is an expense.  And in business, where expenses exceed revenue, there is little incentive to continue the business.  The minister’s goal is $7 per 1,000 gallons.  That represents a significant ‘discount’ and we are sure that the farmers would be extremely happy to reduce their water bill by two thirds, but with the limited knowledge we have, we have to wonder if that is enough? 
We are not farmers, so we did a little research to get a better understanding of the water needs of farmers. The aim, of course, was to demonstrate the need for affordable water for success.  According to the College of Agricultural Sciences at the Pennsylvania State University, a person requires about 50 gallons of water per day for personal use.  (We were surprised by that number, but hey, they are the experts, not us.)  In comparison, a dairy cow requires 25 gallons, a steer, 20 gallons, a horse 12 gallons and chickens need 9 gallons (per 100).  Interesting numbers once you start looking at them in detail.  In annual figures, that is a lot of water.  Over 9,000 gallons for a single dairy cow! 
On the crops side, the university estimates that irrigation requirements in arid climates are 2 acre-feet per year per acre.  In layman’s terms that is just over 540,000 imperial gallons per acre per year.   Using the minister’s goal of $7 per 1,000 gallons, each acre of farmland will cost almost $4,000.  Add the cost of running the farm, harvesting the crops and getting them to market, and we wonder what crops will generate a profit, especially when farmers must also take into consideration things like crop damage and praedial larceny?  Using the current $21 price, the cost triples and the water prices skyrocket to about $12,000 per year per acre. 
That is not all.  As pointed out by the minister, water is only available when APUA makes it available, so the farmers and their crops or livestock are largely at the mercy of APUA if they do not have alternative sources for water or storage facilities.  
Food security is not something that we should take lightly and we are happy to see that the minister is taking the first steps towards ensuring that agriculture is rejuvenated in Antigua and Barbuda.  We wish him the best of luck, and we should all support any efforts he may undertake to improve our food supply independence.  At the same time, we hope that efforts are underway to implement the latest technologies in the industry so as to increase our local supply and the quality of the food on our tables.   Let us push towards organic growth and do our best to eliminate pesticides and steroids in our food supply.  We will no doubt be a healthier nation if we do.

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