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ICARDA contributes to scaling-out successful water use technologies in Saudi Arabia

Mar 22,2017

Considered as the camel of the vegetation world, spineless cactus is a useful supplement in drought conditions.

Throughout history, water scarcity in Arabian Peninsula has affected the livelihoods of inhabitants. The cooperation between ICARDA and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is demonstrating major development outcomes for water saving technologies.

The Challenge: Improved water use efficiency and rehabilitation of rangelands

Agriculture in the Arabian Peninsula, one of the world’s major arid regions, has significantly declined over the past decades. This was due to numerous production constraints: degraded natural resource base, low and variable rainfalls, high evaporation rates and overgrazing in rangelands caused by large and small ruminants.

Initiated in 1998, ICARDA’s Arabian Peninsula Regional Program (APRP) is working with local organizations in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Oman, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Yemen to develop sustainable rangeland and irrigated systems, including protected agriculture, through more efficient use of natural resources – water, energy and indigenous plant species.

The activities in AP region have generously been funded by the Arab Fund for Economic & Social Development (AFESD) and  International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

Adverse climatic conditions and scarcity of irrigation water in KSA have led to development of protected agriculture as the main agricultural emphasis. Despite the fact that a wide range of different greenhouses is in use, lack of experienced technical personnel, soil and water salinity, and pests and diseases are main constraints for development of the sector.

The Approach: Partnership with NARS

ICARDA, in collaboration with National Agricultural Research System (NARS), has been carrying out a number of research for development activities to tackle technical challenges, including training programs to enhance human resource development, and developed Integrated Production and Protection Management Program (IPPM) to reduce use of hazardous chemicals at greenhouses.

Techniques like insect-proof covers (net house) for ventilation, double doors for greenhouses and crop density control used for soilless production system, product of collaborative research with NARS scientists adopted as a solution to water scarcity and low soil fertility in the region, increased yields by 15% in 2016.

Analysis at six pilot farms has proved that average water productivity of tomato has reached about 40 kg/m3 with soilless system, against 9 kg/m3 in soil-based agriculture. The number of farmers implementing these techniques has been growing in KSA.

The Solution: Irrigated forages and spineless cactus

Rehabilitation of heavily degraded rangelands in Saudi Arabia by planting forage species adapted to local conditions have been implemented in close collaboration between ICARDA and national partners.

The study of restoration of 10 ha rangelands in Bsita, northern KSA, with different water harvesting techniques implemented in 2015, showed best results with crescent furrowing water harvesting technique. Saltwort, range specie introduced in Bsita, had the highest survival rate at 12%.

Besides, use of supplemental irrigation could contribute to higher establishment of seedlings:  white saltbush recorded the highest rate of 84%, followed by Mediterranean saltbush - 68%.

Developing production and rehabilitation systems based on indigenous species could serve as potential solution to water use efficiency and rangelands restoration in the Arabian Peninsula.

Buffel grass, identified as forage of high-feed quality and high water-use efficiency, can be harvested 10 times a year in the region, with average annual dry matter yield of up to 20 t/ha. The water use efficiency of buffel grass is 0.81–1.88 m3 compared to 1.18–2.13 m3 of Rhodes grass.

In 2012, ICARDA program worked with farmers in the region to grow buffel grass as a forage crop with productivity around 35% higher than commonly grown Rhodes grass. To conserve and promote indigenous forage species, a seed unit was established in Saudi Arabia.

A number of farms use drip irrigation for supplemental irrigation for buffel grass and other varieties of native forages. In 2016, drip irrigation was installed on more than 2 ha of private farms.

Spineless cactus, introduced as an irrigated forage, is one of the most adapted plants for arid and desert environments. Rich in water and carbohydrates, spineless cactus would provide sufficient energy. In addition to the food value, its moisture content adequately eliminates watering the cattle:  once the sheep consume about 300 dry matter of cactus, the amount of required drinking water is estimated to zero.

Studies on adaptation of 38 spineless cactus accessions introduced in KSA demonstrated higher performances in establishment, growth and fruit production. Total number of growers who adopted irrigated indigenous forages and spineless cactus as a direct result of ICARDA program exceeded 30 by end of 2016. Actual figure could be significantly higher.