CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 88, NO. 5, 10 MARCH 2005 735
Fertility and organic matter in submerged
K. L. Sahrawat
International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, Patancheru 502 324, India
Wetland rice systems in Asia make a major contribution
to global rice supply. The system is also able to maintain
soil fertility on a sustainable basis. The essential compo-
nents of wetland rice culture comprise cultivation of land
in the wet or flooded state (puddling), transplanting of
rice seedlings into puddled rice paddies, and growing
the rice crop under flooding. The land is dry or flood-
fallowed during the turnaround period between two crops.
Following these cultural practices, two or three crops
of rice or rice with upland crops in sequence are grown.
However, in the present context of increasing freshwater
scarcity, there is a case to shift from the traditional way of
growing rice to ways that are water-wise. In this context,
it is crucial that the benefits of the wetland rice system on
soil fertility and productivity are considered. This article
examines the benefits of growing rice in flooded condi-
tions on soil fertility and its maintenance. Research
has shown that the wetland rice system (growing rice
in submerged soils) has a great ameliorative effect on
chemical fertility: largely by bringing pH in the neutral
range, resulting in better availability of plant nutri-
ents and accumulation of organic matter. The article
concludes that the benefits of growing rice using sub-
merged conditions must be considered and weighed in
the context of a likely shift to growing rice with water-
management practices that are water-wise.
SOIL fertility and nutrient supplying capacity of a soil can be
maintained on a long-term basis only by replenishing, by
addition through external inputs, nutrients removed by
cropping and those lost through physical, chemical and bio-
logical processes. In addition to replenishing plant nutrients,
the application of organic matter is also crucial for main-
taining fertility of soils. Soil organic matter acts as a reservoir
of plant nutrients. The maintenance of a threshold level of
organic matter in the soil is crucial for maintaining physical,
chemical and biological integrity of the soil and also for the
soil to perform its agricultural production and environmental
Microbial activity in a soil drives organic matter decompo-
sition and mineralization processes, leading to release of
organically bound plant nutrients in forms available to grow-
ing plants. Because of the prevailing high temperatures in
the tropical regions, decomposition or destruction of added
and soil organic matter is relatively rapid. The balance
between inputs and outputs of organic matter is the observed
organic matter in a soil. Hence, the maintenance of soil orga-
nic matter is possible only through addition of organic matter
on a continuing basis2.
Wetland rice systems in Asia are making a major contribu-
tion to global rice supply3. These systems are also excellent
examples of sustainable soil fertility maintenance4. A unique
feature of soils that remain flooded for prolonged periods,
for example soils that are used for continuous lowland rice
cultivation, is the maintenance of soil fertility and productivity
of wetland rice-based production systems5.
Upland-based production systems have a greater tendency
for unsustainability due mainly to relatively rapid loss of orga-
nic matter, degradation of soil fertility and deterioration
in physical, chemical and biological properties5.
Several studies indicate that given similar climatic and soil
conditions, organic matter accumulates preferentially in tropi-
cal wetland rice soils compared to upland-based production
systems. The maintenance of soil organic matter status in
soils with tropical upland conditions is more difficult than in
soils used for wetland rice conditions. The results from
long-term studies of soil organic matter dynamics in upland
and wetland rice-based production systems support this
conclusion6. Under similar soil and climatic conditions, the
maintenance of organic matter and fertility would seem more
feasible in wetland rice than in upland rice-growing con-
The traditional way of growing lowland rice involves land
preparation by cultivation of the land in flooded or wet state
(puddling), followed by transplanting rice seedlings into the
puddled rice paddies and growing the crop in a submerged
Although the traditional method of growing lowland rice
has been sustainable, the system uses high amounts of water.
Critics argue that lowland rice should be cultivated with
increased water use efficiency. Obviously, there is an urgent
need to critically review and analyse the benefits of growing
rice in submerged conditions in the context of soil chemical
fertility amelioration and fertility maintenance, which might
be affected by switching from traditional to water-saving
This article reviews the recent literature and highlights the
underlying principles that govern the maintenance of organic
matter and soil fertility in wetland rice systems.
Submerging soil and chemical fertility
The most important influence of submerging a soil in water
is to reduce oxygen supply. As a result, the entrained oxygen
CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 88, NO. 5, 10 MARCH 2005
is quickly exhausted. The lack of free oxygen or anaerobiosis
causes soil reduction and sets in motion a series of physical,
chemical and biological processes. The influence of flooding
on physical, chemical and electrochemical properties of soil
has been comprehensively researched and reviewed from time
The main electrochemical changes that influence the chemi-
stry and fertility of submerged soils and growing of crops
such as wetland rice include:
• A decrease in redox potential (redox potential, Eh) or re-
duction of the soil.
• An increase in pH of acid soils and a decrease in pH of
alkali soils, and changes in the floodwater pH.
• An increase in specific conductance and ionic strength
of soil solution.
• Ionic equilibria influence sorption–desorption reactions
and the availability of major and micronutrients.
Submerging aerobic soils in water decreases its Eh that drops
and stabilizes at a fairly stable range of + 200 mV to –300 mV
depending on the soil, especially the content of organic matter
and reducible species (nitrate, sulphate and ferric iron),
particularly iron. But Eh of the surface water and the first few
millimetres of top soil in contact with the surface water remain
relatively oxidized in the Eh range of + 300 to + 500 mV8. A
range of Eh is encountered in various soils from well-drained,
aerated to waterlogged conditions (Table 1).
The Eh of soils controls the stability of various oxidized
components [oxygen, nitrate, manganese (Mn IV), ferric (Fe
III) iron, sulphate (SO2–
4 ), carbon dioxide] in submerged soils
and sediments (Table 2).
The pH of acidic soils decreases following submergence
because under anaerobic conditions, ferric iron is used as an
electron-acceptor for oxidizing organic matter and during
this process acidity is neutralized:
Fe2O3 + 1/2CH2O + 4H+ = 2Fe2+ + 5/2H2O + 1/2CO2. (1)
In these redox reactions, ferric iron (from amorphous ferric
hydroxides) serves as an electron-acceptor and organic
matter (CH2O) as the electron-donor. This reaction results in
the neutralization of acidity and increase in pH.
A decrease in pH of alkali or calcareous soils is the result
of accumulation of carbon dioxide in flooded soil, which
neutralizes alkalinity. Moreover, carbon dioxide produced
is retained in the flooded soil due to restricted diffusion
through standing flood-water layer on the soil surface. This
allows large quantities of carbon dioxide to accumulate and
form mild acid, which help in neutralizing alkalinity in the
soil–floodwater system (see eqs (2) and (3)). Moreover, sub-
merged soil provides an ideal environment for reaction
between carbon dioxide-generated acid (carbonic acid) and
Table 1. Oxidation–reduction potential found in rice
soils ranging from well-drained to submerged condi-
Soil water condition Redox potential (mV)
Aerated or well-drained +700 to +500
Moderately reduced +400 to +200
Reduced +100 to –100
Highly reduced –100 to –300
Table 2. Redox potentials in which the main oxidized
components in submerged soils become unstable30
Reaction Redox potential (mV)
O2–H2O +380 to +320
NO3–N2, Mn4+–Mn2+ +280 to +220
Fe3+–Fe2+ +180 to +150
4 –S2– –120 to –180
CO2–CH4 –200 to –280
CO2 + H2O = H2CO3. (2)
H2CO3 = H+ + HCO3
Ponnamperuma et al.14 studied the influence of redox poten-
tial and partial pressure of carbon dioxide on the pH values
of 35 diverse rice soils (pH range between 3.6 and 9.4) from
the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. The soils were held in
flooded condition in pots in the greenhouse and changes
in soil solution pH, redox potential and partial pressure of
carbon dioxide were monitored for 16 weeks. The results
showed that the pH values of alkali and calcareous soils
decreased and those of acid soils increased to a fairly stable
range of 6.7 to 7.2, 12 weeks after flooding. Further, it
was established that the increase in soil solution pH of the
acid soils was related to the potential of the Fe (OH)3–Fe (II)
system and that the decrease in pH of alkali and calcareous
soils was defined by the partial pressure of carbon dioxide
through the Na2CO3–H2O–CO2 and CaCO3–H2O–CO2 sys-
tems respectively. The pH values were sensitive to carbon
dioxide changes in the soil solution.
Thus accumulation of large amounts of carbon dioxide in
submerged soils acts an ameliorating agent by neutralizing
the alkalinity. Adding organic carbonaceous materials, which
would generate extra carbon dioxide on decomposition, can
enhance the generation of carbon dioxide, especially in soils
low in organic matter. However, if the carbon dioxide pro-
duced is allowed to escape from the soil–water system, it would
result in increasing the pH of the soil–water system.
Thus iron reduction and carbon dioxide concentration
in submerged soils play a key role in controlling the pH of
submerged soils. This, of course, requires optimum temperature
(between 25 and 35°C) and availability of easily decomposable
organic matter, reducible iron and other electron acceptors
such as sulphate and carbon dioxide8,15.
Narteh and Sahrawat13 studied the influence of flooding
on the changes in electrochemical and chemical properties
of 15 diverse soils from West Africa by monitoring the
changes in soil solution drawn periodically from soils held
CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 88, NO. 5, 10 MARCH 2005 737
under flooded condition in pots in the greenhouse. They found
that at four weeks after flooding of soils, the pH of the soil
solution could be predicted from the soil solution redox poten-
tial (Eh in mV) and the concentration (mg l–1) of Fe (II) in soil
solution by the following equation:
Eh = 409–4.09 logFe2+–59 pH; R2 = 0.99. (4)
It was further demonstrated that the changes in soil solution
pH corresponded to the changes in soil solution Eh. A dyna-
mic stability in Eh–pH relationship was established at four
weeks after flooding of the soils and was described by the
∆Eh = –16–48 ∆pH; R2 = 0.84. (5)
Considering all the 15 soils at four weeks after flooding, the
soil solution electrical conductivity (EC) (mScm–1) was signi-
ficantly correlated with the concentrations of Ca, Mg, K and
ammonium (Table 3). Also, at four weeks after flooding, the
mean EC value of the soil solution was highly significantly
correlated with the mean total concentration of Ca, Mg and
K in the soil solution (r = 0.91)13. Ponnamperuma16 reported
similar results on the relationship between soil solution
EC and solution concentration of basic cations in flooded
Sahrawat and Narteh17 showed that at four weeks after
flooding of the 15 West African soils, the soil solution
EC was highly significantly correlated with the total concen-
tration of macro- and micronutrient elements released in the
Solution EC (mS cm–1) = –0.191 + 0.0055 nutrient conc.
in solution (mg l–1);
r = 0.927 (n = 15). (6)
This four-week period coincided with the establishment of
a dynamic equilibrium between pH and Eh. The soils had a
wide range in solution EC, indicating a range in soil fertility
status. The soil solution EC was significantly correlated to
organic C and iron extracted by EDTA. The association bet
ween soil solution EC, concentrations of macro- and micronu-
trient elements in soil solution, organic C and EDTA-
extractable iron of the soils is seen17 in Table 4. It is sug-
gested that the soil solution EC at four weeks after flooding of
the soils can serve as an index of fertility status of soils that
are not affected by salts17.
Table 3. Correlation between soil solution EC of 15
flooded West African soils and concentration of im-
portant nutrient elements in soil solution at four weeks
after flooding. Probability levels of significance (P)
are shown in parentheses13
Nutrient element Correlation coefficient (r)
K 0.85 (P < 0.001)
Ca 0.86 (P < 0.001)
Mg 0.84 (P < 0.001)
Total K + Ca + Mg 0.91 (P < 0.001)
Ammonium-N 0.62 (P < 0.001)
The availability of free water on the soil surface not only
relieves moisture stress, but also provides a more conducive
environment to rice roots, and availability and accessibility
of nutrients through diffusion and mass flow to plant roots9.
The convergence of soil pH to neutrality following sub-
merging of soils benefits wetland rice crop through better
availability of nutrients such as ammonium, P, K and ex-
changeable cations, which are mobilized in soil solution. It
has been shown that preflooding of soil for about four
weeks prior to transplanting of the rice seedlings, leads to the
release of ammonium, phosphate, K and other exchangeable
cations in the soil solution, which is good for the growth of
rice plants. This may allow rice farmers to skip the basal
application of nitrogen fertilizer in some cases. The extent
and release of ammonium and other cations and anions will
depend on soil chemical characteristics including pH, organic
matter and texture8,9,13,18.
From this discussion, it can be concluded that flooding soil
is a great equalizer of diversity in chemical fertility of wetland
soils. This change is brought about by consumption of acidity
in acid soils and the neutralization of alkalinity in alkaline
and calcareous soils following flooding. As a result of flood-
ing, the pH of acidic soils increases and that of alkaline
soils decreases and the chemical reaction of submerged soils
generally stabilizes in the neutral range8,13. This is the benefit
of flooding of soils to rice crop.
The convergence of pH to near neutral also affects the
availability of plant nutrients mostly in a favourable manner.
However, soil reduction, following flooding of soils that are
rich in reducible iron, accumulates excessive concentrations
of iron in the soil solution that could be toxic to wetland rice.
Also, production of reduction products in submerged soils,
such as sulphide and organic acids in flooded soils, may cause
toxicity and retardation of rice plant growth, especially in
soils that are high in easily decomposable organic matter
or if high amounts of organic materials are added to the soil9.
Salient changes in the availability of plant nutrients and
organic matter accumulation as a result of flooding of soils,
gleaned from the literature, are summarized in Table 5.
Submerging soil and organic matter
The decomposition of soil or added organic matter is rela-
tively fast under aerobic conditions where oxygen is the
electron acceptor. However, under submerged conditions
the supply of free oxygen is low or absent and the decomposi-
tion of organic matter depends on the availability of electron
acceptors such as ferric iron or sulphate. Moreover, the alter-
nate electron-acceptors (ferric hydroxides or sulphate) are
inefficient in the destruction of organic matter compared to
oxygen. Consequently, the decomposition of organic matter is
comparatively slow, inefficient and incomplete under
flooded or anaerobic soil conditions. Coupled with retarded
rates of organic matter decomposition in submerged soils, the
higher primary productivity of wetlands, contribution by
CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 88, NO. 5, 10 MARCH 2005
Table 4. Distribution of 15 West African soils according to the concentration of macro- and micro-
nutrient elements in soil solution at four weeks after flooding, and the associated soil solution EC,
organic C and EDTA extractable iron (EDTA–Fe)17
Conc. of nutrients Soil solution EC No. of Organic C EDTA–Fe
in solution (mg l–1) (mS cm–1) soils (g kg–1) (mg kg–1)
> 200 0.72–1.92 3 23.0–46.0 150–2200
100–200 0.25–0.92 8 7.4–35.2 125–1375
< 100 0.12–0.30 4 9.2–23.2 450–800
Table 5. Changes in organic matter and availability of plant nutrients
in soils following their submergence under water
Chemical property Change(s) following soil submergence
pH Favours convergence to neutral pH
Organic matter Favours accumulation of organic C and N
Ammonium-N Release and accumulation of ammonium favoured
P Improves P availability, especially in soils
high in Fe and Al oxides
K K availability improves through exchange of K
Ca, Mg, Na Favours release of Ca, Mg and Na in solution
S Sulphate reduction may reduce sulphur availability
Fe Iron availability improves in alkali and calcareous
soils, but Fe toxicity may occur in acidic soils high
in reducible Fe
Al Al toxicity is generally absent, except perhaps in
acid sulphate soils
Cu, Zn and Mo Improves availability of Cu and Mo but not of Zn
Reduction Production of sulphide and organic acids, especially
products in degraded soils may cause toxicity or injurious
effects to growing plants
biological nitrogen fixation and decreased humification of
organic matter lead to preferential (compared to aerobic
counterpart soils) accumulation of organic matter in wetland
soils and sediments6.
Sahrawat6 cites several examples from recent literature,
which show that accumulation of organic C and N in sub-
merged soils is significant in wetland rice double-cropping,
even during short-term experiments. The use of an upland
crop in the crop sequence with wetland rice resulted in
decreased organic C and total N.
Relatively higher accumulation of organic matter (organic
C and total N) in wetland soils makes them attractive for
sequestration of C for increasing the fertility of wetland
soils and at the same time mitigating greenhouse emis-
sions19. Unlike in aerobic soils, such effects can be significant
during relatively short periods. For example, Witt et al.20
conducted a two-year experiment under irrigated condition
to study the effects of crop rotation and residue management
on C sequestration and N accumulation, and rice productivity.
They found that compared to the rice–rice system replacement
of dry-season rice by maize caused a reduction in soil C
and N sequestration due to a 33–41% increase in the esti-
mated amount of mineralized C and less input from biological
N fixation during the dry-season maize crop. There was
11–20% more C sequestration and 5–12% more N accumula-
tion in soils continuously cropped with wetland rice, than
in maize–rice rotation with greater amounts sequestered
in N-fertilized treatments. These results demonstrate the
capacity of continuous, irrigated rice systems to sequester
C and accumulate N during relatively short time-periods.
Application of crop residues such as rice straw, has a bene-
ficial effect on the build-up of organic matter and in increas-
ing the N-supplying capacity of wetland rice soils. This is due
to the fact that there is a strong relationship between organic
matter content and potentially mineralizable N21. Moreover,
application of organic matter to submerged soil provides
energy for soil changes in pH and Eh, thus resulting in
benefits in terms of nutrient release and availability to
wetland rice12. Thus flooding soil through accumulation of
organic matter (organic C and N) imparts stability and
sustainability in crop productivity and maintenance of fertility
in wetland soils.
Flooding a soil with water sets in motion a series of physical,
chemical and biological processes. Changes in flooded soils
are triggered by lack of oxygen in the flooded soil-system.
The soil gets reduced (lower Eh; see Tables 1 and 2), for which
energy is provided by mineralizable organic C. The reduction
process is regulated by the presence and availability of elec-
tron acceptors (mainly ferric iron and sulphate) and elec-
tron donors (organic matter). Soil reduction is accompanied
by changes in the pH, Eh, specific conductance, sorption–
desorption, ion exchange and exchange equilibria, which in
turn greatly influence the availability of plant nutrients, uptake
and utilization by wetland rice9.
Soils with moderate to high content of organic matter or
added organic matter can help adjust soil pH to the neutral
range (6.5–7.5), which is of benefit to the rice crop, because
this pH range appears to favour nutrient uptake by wetland
rice. Availability of N (ammonium is stable in reduced soils),
P, K, Ca, Mg, Fe, Mn and Si is high (see Table 5). The supply
of micronutrients such as Cu and Mo is adequate22. Gener-
ally, the availability of Zn is reduced as result of submer-
gence of the soil23. Toxic concentrations of Al and Mn in soil
solution are absent in submerged mineral rice soils, be-
cause the solubility of these metals is reduced as a result of
increase in soil pH8. However, Fe toxicity and injurious
concentrations of organic acids and sulphide may be present
to cause toxicity to lowland rice, especially in soils with high
organic matter and impeded drainage23.
CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 88, NO. 5, 10 MARCH 2005 739
The rice–wheat system occupies 24 mha of cultivated land
in the Indo-Gangetic Plains and in China, and is one the
world’s largest production system. Recent results from
long-term experiments indicate that soil organic matter levels
have declined24,25. Several hypotheses have been put forth
to explain the declining trend in organic matter content and
accompanying decline in yields, including lack of application
of organic matter input and decreased nutrient supplying
capacity of the soil, especially N. However, results from
long-term experiments with the rice–rice (lowland) system
show that organic matter is generally maintained or even
increased6. Clearly, organic matter accumulates under sub-
merged conditions of the rice–rice system. On the other hand,
organic matter that accumulates under lowland rice is rapidly
oxidized under arable cropping of wheat in the rice–wheat
Higher net primary productivity has been ascribed as the
important factor for increased organic matter in tropical
wetlands26. Flooded soil provides an ideal environment for
aerobic and anaerobic microbial activity in its floodwater
and contributes to higher net primary productivity27. Wetlands
are important for sequestering carbon from the atmosphere
under anaerobic metabolism. Protection of existing wetlands
and creation and restoration of new wetlands will contribute
to carbon sequestration for mitigating greenhouse emis-
Wetland rice culture favours fertility maintenance and
build-up of organic matter in soils, and is the backbone of
long-term sustainability of the wetland rice systems6. Further
strategic research is needed in the field and through the
use of simulation modelling for studying and evaluating the
comparative effects of growing rice under submerged
condition in rice paddies and under various alternate water-
management practices that save and conserve water on
soil fertility maintenance in the longer-term. Such research
would help in making an appropriate decision by considering
trade-offs between water-saving and yields, and fertility
maintenance for the future growing of an important staple
such as rice.
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Received 23 July 2004; revised accepted 8 November 2004