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Enhancing water and land productivity

Water is the common denominator for problems affecting farmers in dryland countries. Depletion and mismanagement of groundwater reserves is being exacerbated by the effects of climate change, with less rainfall, and more erratic distribution.

Rainfall is also becoming increasingly erratic - across West Asian and North African, for instance, annual totals are generally below 250 mm, and sometimes as little as 50 mm. Meanwhile, temperatures can rise as high as 50 degrees.

Population growth, pollution, and increased stability compound the problem, placing growing pressure on smallholder farmers in their quest for stable food production. The difficulties are becoming even more acute due to competing demands from rapidly-increasing urban areas.

While farmers are among the hardest-hit, they are also the biggest users of water – globally, agriculture uses 70 percent of all water extracted from rivers, lakes and aquifers.

Although recognized by national leaders as a strategic priority, very few countries have a master plan for managing water in their agricultural sector and for dealing with the uncertainties that lie ahead.

Ongoing research at ICARDA has been producing 'more with less' in various production systems across our target regions – in greenhouses, on fields, and across rangelands. In recent years, a number of technology packages have been optimized and validated, ready for scaling-out. Some of these are indicated below:

Soilless innovations: higher yields with less water on the Arabian Peninsula

A partnership of scientists, extension workers and pilot farmers across seven countries in the Arabian Peninsula have delivered scalable technology packages for soilless (hydroponic) systems, enabling smallholder farmers in water-scarce regions to reap high-yield, high-quality cash crops even under harsh growing conditions. The initiative tested and improved on various innovations in greenhouse design; integrated pest management practices; and soilless production systems to optimize a system that uses less water and provides higher yields.

The results?

  • Soilless culture in Oman has demonstrated 40 percent higher yields for cucumbers grown in greenhouses, compared to those in open fields in Oman
  • In the United Arab Emirates, farmers enjoyed a seven-fold increase in water productivity, growing tomatoes in a soilless culture rather than in conventional soil farming
  • A cost-benefit analysis computed an average 200 percent increase in annual profit per m2 per year from soilless production in greenhouses in Kuwait. Additional benefits came from measures to control pests, such as soil solarization, which effectively controlled weeds and nematode infestations in tomato plants, increasing yields by 260 percent 
  • Encouraged by the income increases from soilless farming technologies, a hydroponics demonstration and research site was built in 2013, while Oman, UAE, Qatar and Bahrain have implemented a catalytic incentive policy to encourage farmers to convert to soilless farming and adopt integrated technologies.

Raised bed planting machines revolutionize water productivity for Egypt’s smallholders   

Raised-bed planting, where crops are grown in the elevated area between deep furrows, is a traditional practice in Egypt and has many conservation benefits – it reduces the amount of water applied to the land, and water loss from percolation, and also ensures good aeration of the roots, the efficient use of fertilizer, and easier weed control.

However, small-scale farmers have poor access to this technology as existing machinery is expensive and not suited to small fragmented lands.

An innovative adaptation of seed drills to formulate the beds and sow different crops at the same time with adjustable seed rates is revolutionizing water productivity and yields for smallholder farmers in Egypt’s Nile Delta. These machines are easy to maintain, cost-effective solutions for small- to medium-size farms, and ensure there are no skipped or double-planted areas.

In Al-Sharkia, Egypt, the land used for mechanized raised-bed cultivation of wheat increased from 1670 hectares to a phenomenal 21,250 hectares over three years, from 2010 to 2013. As the success and simplicity of the raised-bed machine is catching on, ICARDA is working to outscale the technology by contracting a local company to manufacture machines, and sending them to countries such as Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Morocco, Nigeria, and Sudan.

Scientists are optimizing soil and water management practices for semi-permanent raised beds to maximize productivity and to enable greater numbers of farmers to adopt the technology.

Laser-guided Vallerani plow harnesses rainwater to ‘green’ rangelands in Jordan         

Jordan’s rangelands occupy more than 80 percent of the country’s area and receive less than 200 mm of rainfall per year, often as unpredictable storms. The region’s crusting soils lose rainwater to evaporation or surface runoff. Micro-catchments for harvesting rainwater can address this problem and Vallarani plows are an efficient tool to build these – a technique utilized by ICARDA as part of its ongoing project, ‘Community-based Organization of the Water Resource Management in Agriculture in West Asia and North Africa (2004-2013).’

ICARDA’s scientists have now further improved the Vallerani technique with an auto guiding system using inexpensive lasers. This reduces the cost and time required to identify contours for the plow to follow, and has tripled the system’s capacity (up to 30 ha per day), improved efficiency and precision, and substantially reduced the cost of creating micro-catchments.

The technique has created expansive water harvesting, enabling large-scale planting, which is substantially improving water productivity, yields, and incomes for farmers. Benefiting farmers are enjoying more than double the yield for barley and 1.6 times for rangeland shrubs, compared to those grown without water harvesting.

Water harvesting has also been rehabilitating poor quality land by providing improved vegetation cover, thus mitigating degradation and erosion. The enhanced Vallerani technology has been implemented on over 1800 ha of rangeland so far, with adoption rates tripling since the start of the Project in 2004. The technology is now being promoted to scale-out the benefits.