June 4th just so happens to be the 155th day of the year. But in Cape Town, it is also Doomsday for the city’s residents. “Day Zero,” as it’s being called in the South African city, is the day when Cape Town officially runs out of fresh water, turning off its taps indefinitely. Shortly after the announcement was made, BBC released a list of 11 cities that are expected to follow in Cape Town’s footsteps, bringing home the message that water scarcity is not a thing of the distant future. A Dutch company, Salt Farm Texel, however, thinks that saline agriculture could be the solution to the world’s water crisis.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly 844 million people lack basic potable water services and, by 2025, half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas, posing serious threats to humans as well as agriculture. Observing the events in Cape Town has prompted the world to think of alternatives to the the world’s looming fresh water crisis.

Saline agriculture is a farming technique that uses salt water for irrigation, yielding plants that look and taste exactly like their freshwater counterparts. To get a full picture of the process of saline agriculture, we sit down with Dutch company Salt Farm Texel, which is currently working on expanding its expertise to other water-stressed areas of the world.

Saline Agriculture: Salty H2O

Fresh water naturally found on Earth makes up only three percent of the planet’s total water; of that, 68 percent of the world’s fresh water is locked in ice and glaciers, while the remaining (mostly accessible) fresh water comes from rivers and aquifers. Finding ways to utilize salt water for agriculture, cooking, and other purposes would potentially open up a trove of possibilities for people living in water-stressed areas. But using salt water as a main source of clean water is not feasible in most situations, since salt water cannot be used for daily activities like showering or drinking, for example.

When it comes to agriculture, the world uses approximately 69 percent of its fresh water for irrigation, which is proving to be highly unsustainable. There are, however, ways that salt water can be used, and Dutch company Salt Farm Texel is one of many initiatives working to expand the usage of salt water in agriculture.

Salt Farm Texel

In 2006, Marc van Rijsselberghe founded Salt Farm Texel on the island of Texel in The Netherlands. Despite the abundance of fresh water in The Netherlands, the Kingdom has problems with salinization. In an attempt to capitalize on salt water, Van Rijsselberghe founded Salt Farm Texel to help The Netherlands deal with salinization and expand his knowledge to other countries that face similar challenges.

Salt Farm Texel is made up of around 20 individuals, including Arjen de Vos, who spoke to progrss about the company’s experience with saline agriculture. Salt Farm Texel works to reach as many countries struggling with water scarcity as possible. Many of these countries also struggle with salt intrusion, sometimes called autonomous salinization, which is the seeping of salt water into freshwater bodies.

De Vos tells progrss that the majority of the salt farm’s work is open source, meaning that their work is always made available to the public. Through the organization, the team has set up projects in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and in the Wadden Sea region in Europe.

saline agriculture

Salt Farm Texel is currently working with farmers from Pakistan and Bangladesh on saline agriculture. (Courtesy of Salt Farm Texel)

The farm focuses primarily on utilizing salt water in farming, a method alternatively known as saline agriculture. Accordingly, Salt Farm Texel spends the majority of its time in Tegel on the prowl for vegetables that can withstand salt water without forgoing nutrition, taste, texture, or color. The company is also working to develop fertilizers that will facilitate saline agriculture and researches how to develop its techniques to export to other countries that struggle with water scarcity or salt intrusion.

Arjen de Vos tells progrss that the salt farm has tested and successfully proven that more than eight different vegetables are salt-tolerant, meaning that they can be farmed with salt water. Salt Farm Texel has also set up a knowledge center for its projects in collaboration with the Dutch government.

When progrss spoke with De Vos, he had just returned from a field visit to Bangladesh where Salt Farm Texel is working with a number of civil society organizations and farmers to develop saline agriculture. “In Bangladesh we work with NGOs [like] ICCO Cooperation and Codec. We are [currently] training the NGO staff who, [in turn], train the farmer, although we also train the farmers directly. [This is how] we can reach out to many farmers. Up until now, we haven’t worked together with the UN or other organizations, but there is, for sure, great potential for this. We [just] have to meet the right people first,” he says. 

Out With The Old, In With The New

Cape Town’s struggle to find a solution to its depleting supply of fresh water is sounding alarms elsewhere in the world. As the city’s leadership races to get more desalination plants running and enforces a cap on residents’ freshwater intake per day, Salt Farm Texel has brought its work to the city.

In October of last year, Studio-H, a South African design studio, participated in Dutch Design Week and showcased a number of salt-tolerant foods grown at Salt Farm Texel. When they returned to Cape Town, the design studio team began a project called S/Zalt, a play on the Afrikaans and Dutch word for ‘salt,’ which involves making food using salt-tolerant ingredients and minimal amounts of fresh water in the process. The project came just in time for the announcement of Day Zero, offering Cape Townians advice on how to reduce dependence on fresh water.

Cape Town’s struggles with water scarcity are multifaceted and date back long before January 2018, when Cape Town’s mayor Patricia de Lille announced the imminence of Day Zero. Because Cape Town has a Mediterranean Climate, the city generally receives rainfall during the winter months, which is when the city’s six main dams are filled.

With the doubling of Cape Town’s population between 1995 and 2018, the city’s water sources began to significantly dry up. City leadership, however, was well aware of the possibility of the imminence of Day Zero as early as 1990. Despite many attempts to prevent the current water crisis in Cape Town, the city announced this year that it would be forced to shut off municipal water sources if consumption was not curbed, leaving residents to draw water from the some 149 collection points around the city.

The introduction of the agricultural techniques that Salt Farm Texel has been working on in Cape Town suggests the possibility of reversing the city’s current water crisis. Although the salt farm primarily works to combat the inevitable effects of soil erosion, soil intrusion, and other advents of salt in agriculture, saline agriculture can also potentially help Cape Town and other water-scarce cities reduce their dependence on fresh water in farming.

While the 11 cities singled out by BBC face the most pressing threats, the rest of the world will soon face similar challenges. And while water scarcity is largely the result of global warming, which is exacerbated by humankind, exorbitant usage of fresh water also makes up part of the problem. According to Global Agriculture, Asia uses close to 90 percent of its water supply on irrigation, making it the highest consumer of fresh water for agriculture globally.

Prior to the panic that ensued after city leadership announced the imminence of Day Zero, agriculture made up the majority of the city’s fresh water consumption. According to Green Cape, an organization working to find green solutions to economic problems in the Western Cape, the city used more than 60 percent of its water supply on agriculture alone. A cap was later put on the amount of water that could be used for agriculture in order to slow down the depletion of Cape Town’s water supply.

Across the seven continents, Europe is the highest in terms of consumption for industry, allocating almost 50 percent of its water resources for industrial purposes, and the lowest consumer of water for agriculture. In both cases, heavy usage of water places corporations and governments at fault for misusing water resources.

saline agriculture

Courtesy of Aquastat.

A Pinch of Salt for Good Luck

With 70 percent of the world’s fresh water going to farming, the prospects of saline agriculture helping to address the world’s looming water crisis are promising. What is key in understanding the importance of expanding saline agriculture elsewhere is not only thinking about what the world can collectively do to slow down water scarcity, but also what can be done to reverse existing damage.