World Soil Day: The critical role of soil and water in sustaining life

Children aged six to 12 years were shown how to plant several types of seeds and transplant young seedlings from seed trays to the garden at the Soil-tastic Day children's gardening workshop on Nov 18. Photos: Noraini Md Jaafar

World Soil Day, observed annually on Dec 5, is more than a celebration; it is a call for global advocacy and action emphasising the critical role of soil and water in sustaining life.

The 2023 theme, “Soil and Water: A Source of Life”, highlights the essential symbiotic relationship between these elements in agriculture and environmental health.

Initiated by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, this day highlights the importance of healthy soils for food security, ecosystem functionality, and sustainable development. Around the world, educational events, workshops, policy discussions, and community-driven activities are organised to reinforce a crucial message: preserving soil and water goes beyond agrarian interests and is fundamental to our environmental future.

Agriculture is a story of interconnection, with soil and water as central characters. Soil, our planet’s living skin, offers more than just a foundation for plant growth. It is a reservoir of nutrients and a megapolis for biodiversity, comprising microorganisms and other soil organisms.

And water – the elixir of life – complements the soil by facilitating nutrient uptake, maintaining plant health, and balancing ecosystems. This dynamic duo plays a pivotal role in agricultural productivity, biodiversity and food security.Children being shown live earthworms and how compost could be further enriched by their presence (vermicompost) during the Soil-tastic Day children's gardening workshop on Nov 18.Children being shown live earthworms and how compost could be further enriched by their presence (vermicompost) during the Soil-tastic Day children's gardening workshop on Nov 18.

However, both soil and water are vulnerable to mismanagement and climate change. Soil ecosystems are often ignored in pursuit of maximum but unsustainable agricultural yields. Soils are the farm’s most important assets. Healthy soils with abundant organic matter act as significant carbon sinks, which helps minimise carbon emissions.

Clean and ample water sources are essential to sustain life on Earth. Water may cover nearly three-quarters of our planet; however, less than 0.1% of the world’s water can be used directly.

Agriculture is the world’s largest consumer of water. It utilises 290 million litres every second for crop cultivation; regrettably, 70% of this colossal amount is not utilised efficiently, resulting in wastage.

Consequently, governance and conservation of soil and water are crucial, particularly in light of increasing global population pressure, rising food demands, and detrimental climate change.

Role of gardeners

Gardeners are not just cultivators of plants but also custodians of the earth’s soil and water. The responsibility bestowed upon them is significant, and their role in shaping a sustainable future cannot be understated.

The key to a thriving garden lies in soil health. Gardeners can contribute significantly to this ecosystem through composting. This involves repurposing organic waste, such as kitchen scraps and garden trimmings, into nutrient-rich substances that enrich soils.The children were also taught how soils, rocks and minerals were formed.The children were also taught how soils, rocks and minerals were formed.

Composting not only recycles waste, but also improves soil structure, enhances nutrient content, and encourages beneficial microbial activity.

However, it is important for gardeners, especially those new to the craft, to be mindful of the use of fertilisers. Over-application or overzealous experimentation with various types of fertilisers can lead to soil nutrient imbalance and harm plant growth.

The specific needs of plants must be recognised so that the correct type and amount of fertiliser can be applied to meet those needs. This careful management ensures that plants receive essential nutrients without the risk of over-fertilisation, which can lead to runoff and environmental harm.

Efficient water management is one cornerstone of sustainable gardening. Drip irrigation systems are excellent examples of efficient water use. By delivering water directly to the base of each plant, these systems minimise waste and reduce evaporation.

Rainwater harvesting is another sustainable practice that allows gardeners to collect and use rainwater for irrigation, thus conserving the municipal or groundwater supply. The strategic use of mulch plays a dual role; it not only protects the soil surface against erosion, but also helps to retain moisture and reduce the need for frequent watering.

Gardens should be exhibitions of plant diversity. A gardener’s choice to cultivate a variety of plant species not only adds beauty, but also enhances ecological health. Planting a mix of species encourages a diverse range of insects and wildlife, each of which plays a unique role in the garden ecosystem.Learning about soil formation through sand and clay art play.Learning about soil formation through sand and clay art play.

By creating a space that welcomes a variety of life forms, gardeners contribute to biodiversity conservation. Promoting biodiversity is an act of ecological stewardship, reflecting a deep understanding of and respect for interconnections within nature.

World Soil Day 2023 provides us with a deeper appreciation and understanding of soil and water, not just as components of agricultural success but as foundations of life on Earth. The call to action for gardeners and the community at large is clear: embrace sustainable practices, deepen our connection with the earth, and become proactive participants in safeguarding these precious resources.

Dr Noraini Md Jaafar is a soil microbiologist at the Department of Land Management, Faculty of Agriculture, Universiti Putra Malaysia. She is an advocate of organic farming, and teaches communities sustainable farming techniques and waste recycling. Assoc Prof Dr Christopher Teh Boon Sung heads the Department of Land Management, Faculty of Agriculture, Universiti Putra Malaysia. His field of specialty is in soil and water conservation.

UPM invites environmental enthusiasts, agriculture professionals, researchers and scholars, policy makers and anyone passionate about the health of our Earth to attend the Soils Forum 2023.

Organised in conjunction with the World Soil Day celebration, the event will be held on Dec 5 from 9.30am - 1pm at Dewan Pertanian, Faculty of Agriculture, Universiti Putra Malaysia in Serdang, Selangor.

Focusing on the topic, "Sustainable Soil and Water Management Towards Achieving SDGs", distinguished panellists will discuss the crucial role of sustainable soil and water management in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

RSVP here to secure your spot. For more info, email or call 03-9769 4121/013-293 0148.

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