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February 1, 2018

Saline agriculture way forward to food security


February 1, 2018

HYDERABAD: Researchers are preparing to introduce saline agriculture in Sindh to fight the increasing salt levels in soils, groundwater, river and freshwater lakes of the province due to multiple reasons.

Though the idea is in its initial stage, researchers consider using degraded lands to address the rising demand of food as the way forward.

Recent studies found that around 50 percent land in Sindh was affected by salinity, which is increasing each passing day. Total cultivable area of Sindh is 14.5 million acres or 5.88 million hectares and the total cropped area is 7.6 million acres or 3.10 million hectares.

Major crops in winter and summer, include wheat, rice, sugarcane, cotton, chilli, oil seeds, pulses, fodder grasses, variety of vegetables and fruits - mango, banana, date, etc. However, accurate data showing specified land for crop production, degradation and the portion that has come under urbanisation is missing.

Receding river water, unending rise in sea level, uncertain rain spells and unplanned installation of tube wells to extract underground water for agriculture are said to be unavoidable factors. These factors have contributed in degrading a large portion of fertile land as well as water logging in Sindh, researchers said.

Researchers have conducted soil tests and assessed crops in the province and are practicing on community-based pilot projects.

Mustafa Nangraj, a researcher, associated with Agriculture Extension Sindh quoted a recent study in which random soil samples were collected form 14 districts of the province. The study found salinity in a wide area, which is constantly increasing. He believes further research and planning was needed to stop land degradation.

“Characteristics of saline and water-logged land are different. For instance, in some areas 100-1,000 acre or more are saline, where cultivation is not possible without guidance of qualified researchers,” he said. Also, there are some patches of lands where common crops are being cultivated but production is low.

Low water in the Indus River, which is the major source of irrigation and for recharging underground aquifers, is not enough to meet the sea, which is also resulting in sea intrusion. Installation of tube wells without proper planning has further aggravated the situation. Unsure monsoon rains on top have created problems in terms of recharging underground water level and feeding rain-dependant areas - arid zones.

Prof Ismail Kumbhar of Sindh Agriculture University Tandojam, who is preparing to introduce community-based bio-saline agriculture to produce food crops in arid zones, believes presently a wide area of Sindh either has lost underground water quality or there may be limited water to use sustainably.

“Despite this visible threat to water availability, greedy landlords still install tube wells for extracting remaining water for agriculture because there is no policy mechanism to stop this dangerous exercise,” he lamented. “The impact of this phenomenon can be gauged from the facts that villagers in many areas do not have access to pure water, as traditional sources of drinking water like canals, wells and hand pumps are contaminated. People spend more on buying water for domestic use or pay huge cost in shape of waterborne diseases.”

About the project, he said, “It is in its initial phase and we are assessing the land and the potential of bio-saline agriculture in the desert.” Quoting recent reports, Prof Ismail Kumbhar said that 85 percent underground water was unsafe for human consumption in Sindh.

“We are looking at options and saline agriculture may be an alternative to produce food crops to address the need of food and fodder,” he said, and added different nations have adopted this new technology to use their degraded lands productively.

There have been reports that some farmers in Thar Desert planted jujube on their land and used saline water on fertile land, but later observed salt deposits on the roots. They decided that using saline water on fertile land would decrease land fertility and was not advisable.

Another case is of the Manchhar Lake, where surrounding cultivable fertile land has been ruined due to the use of saline water.

Similarly, community people from rice producing Dadu and Qambar-Shahdadkot districts used contaminated water of Main Nara Valley (MNV) drain for rice cultivation and lost their lands. They took this drainage water as an alternative because they did not have fresh irrigation water.

The failure of the Pakistan - Salinity Control and Reclamation (SCARP) programme to extract saline water by installing 3,756 tube wells in the province is also an example, as 80 percent tube wells are not functional.

Researchers believe introducing desalination technology before using saline water for cultivation is a better option. However, concrete research findings are missing in this regard. Efforts to promote saline agriculture on degraded lands in the province on experimental basis are appreciable, but the gaps in research mechanism need to be bridged for introducing a successful model for suitability.

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