Low-cost soil moisture measurement and parsimonious crop modelling to assist agricultural water management

Soham Adla

Creating resilient food systems to feed the increasing global population is an urgent challenge. This dissertation presents a framework and open-source tool to quantify farm performance, testing this in Kanpur, India, and develops best practices to improve efficient agricultural water use by using low-cost hardware and software. 

A reviewer described the thesis as having ‘the potential to make a significant contribution to agricultural water management, contributing to food security and climate change adaptation’ and ‘clearly among the more potentially impactful theses in the area of agricultural engineering.’

Researcher profile


Soham Adla

Soham has Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Civil Engineering, specializing in Hydraulics and Water Resources Engineering. He recently obtained a PhD (Doctor of Engineering) focusing on agricultural water management. In the future, Soham wants to engage with different stakeholders in the water-food-energy nexus to address pressing issues with community-driven, interdisciplinary and data-based approaches. He values facilitating clear and mutually respectful communication between different stakeholders to find effective solutions.

Researcher profile

What was your thesis topic?

In my PhD thesis, we presented a framework (and an open-source, easy-to-use tool) to quantify farm-level performance, to assist advisors in diagnosing issues and developing advisories at the farm-level. Further, we proposed a combination of low-cost hardware which measures soil moisture and software which simulates crop growth to improve water use efficiencies (or the irrigation water applied per unit harvested crop yield). Using laboratory testing, field experiments and computer simulation modelling, we were able to develop some best practices which can lead to significant improvements in simulated water use efficiencies. This could save up to 14L/kg wheat grain produced, or 150,000L/ha on average, leading to critical economic and environmental benefits.

In what ways do you think your topic improves the world?

As achieving food security becomes even more challenging due to climate change impacts, it is essential to reduce water wastages at all stages of agricultural production. With 70% of the global freshwater resources allotted to agriculture (and majorly irrigation), techniques to save this water can significantly improve the resilience and sustainability of our food (and other agricultural) systems. The problem in scaling such solutions and applying it to the Majority World is that solutions need to be cost effective. This was an effort to use relatively low-cost technology to show the potential of water savings in flood irrigated wheat agriculture. Such efforts can help farms with some capital to invest in technologies to enhance farm-scale water use efficiencies and resilience.

The research topic, to address irrigation water savings using low-cost technology, was developed out of focused group discussions with stakeholders (e.g., farmers), and the current state of the art in low-cost sensing technology in agriculture. However, the effectiveness of applying technology to address problems hinges on finding the right problem together with stakeholders, understanding the dynamics underlying different aspects of the problem, and designing the solution with an understanding of the factors which influence its adoption. In the example of technology for agriculture, this would entail finding a tangible problem felt by the agricultural and allied community, understanding all the human-environment dynamics influencing this problem along the supply chain (from the farm to the consumer’s plate), and developing a solution after knowing what (socio-economic, psychological, cultural) factors influence the adoption of such technologies. Finally, the scientific solution needs to be translated and communicated to different stakeholders (end users, policy makers, civil society organizations, funding agencies, educational institutions, etc.) to enable robust and sustained uptake of the solution.

What recommendations would you make to others interested in taking a similar direction with their research?

I can humbly offer the following suggestions to people attempting experimental research (particularly in the area of water-energy-food), including me:

  • Identifying a problem which is both scientifically and socially relevant is deceptively challenging. I wish I knew about organizations like Effective Thesis at the beginning of my PhD – this could have further helped me. The inspiration for such problems can also come through other sources – civil society organizations, social scientists or even art!
  • Design the experiment carefully to test your hypothesis. This requires knowledge of different methodologies, identifying a methodology suitable to the question which is scientifically justifiable, and practically implementable, within the time frame of a PhD.
  • Prepare for the experiment. This needs planning and efficient management time, logistics, money and human resources. This aspect is highly underrated – sometimes ineffective planning and implementation can keep a great idea from being realized. This is not a new problem, and experts have written about this extensively – an example is Dr. Sara Vero’s book “Fieldwork Ready: An Introductory Guide to Field Research for Agriculture, Environment, and Soil Scientists.” Podcasts and videos could also help you learn from others’ experiences, provided that the knowledge comes from credible people.
  • Ask others for help. People who have been in our shoes do understand the struggles of conducting experimental or related research. They may be more approachable than you expect. Please reach out, and don’t hesitate to reach out again if they don’t get back the first time. More often than not, they do want to help, but are unable to respond due to an overflowing inbox, pressing tasks, or because of life happening.
  • Failure is part of the process. Experiments fail frequently, but failure isn’t normalized among researchers conducting their PhDs. It’s very important not to be too hard on ourselves and accept that sometimes the reasons for failure are beyond our control. The experiment is something that we do, and not a reflection of who we are. So, it’s important to maintain our objectivity, get back to the drawing board, identify aspects that can be improved, and move on to the next iteration.
  • Keep going back to what motivated you initially. Challenging problems need highly motivated people to solve them. There is often a story or incident behind why a researcher chooses a challenging problem. I believe it’s important to keep going back to this personal source, to remind us why we set out to do what we are doing, and to rejuvenate our intrinsic motivations. My way to get this energy is by talking to farmers; for others, it could be something else. To each their own!

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