Integrated management technologies of saline water was the focus of a four-day workshop held at ICBA from 15-18 October which brought together delegates from the Ministry of Environment and Water, Abu Dhabi Food Control Agency, municipalities and specialists from ICBA.
In her introduction to the workshop, Dr Ismahane Elouafi, ICBA Director General, highlighted the importance of biosaline agriculture as an ecological and environmental solution to the water-scarcity affecting arid and semi-arid regions. For more than twelve years, the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) has continued to fulfill its mandate outlined in its Strategic Plan 2008-2012 to help water-scarce countries improve the productivity, social equity and environmental sustainability of water use through an integrated water resource systems approach, with special emphasis on saline and marginal quality water. Dr Elouafi stressed that ICBA implemented this mandate through strategies such as workshops to facilitate the sharing of knowledge and experience and transfer the training and technologies of applied science to national cadres.
The workshop outlined the challenges affecting the agricultural components of water, soil and crops and how biosaline agriculture is being developed to meet these challenges.
Environmental challenges such as water scarcity, land degradation and desertification, biodiversity loss, forest degradation, deterioration of marine and coastal environments, atmospheric changes and pollution, and urban environmental problems and resource deterioration are affecting water supplies. Scarce water supplies impact consequently on food security and farmers’ livelihoods, so the utilization and management of saline water in agricultural production is critical.
Water Productivity Research
To address issues impacting on water security at the regional, local and international level, in recent times ICBA has been steadily increasing its role in applied research and technology transfer in the water sector. One of the strategies to accomplish this is by addressing how water is used through water productivity research to optimize irrigation usage and enhancing the use of alternative water resources. Several sessions on irrigation management in the saline environment provided the audience with the opportunity to see the kinds of innovative irrigation technology that is most applicable to the UAE environment.
A critical source of water used to produce date palm or cash crops in greenhouses or to supply drinking water to livestock in the UAE is groundwater which has been desalinated. Throughout the UAE many small-scale reverse osmosis (RO) plants are used to desalinate groundwater to produce date palm or cash crops in greenhouses or to supply drinking water to animals and poultry. The use of such technologies requires proper brine concentrate management or disposal practices; otherwise disposal practices can lead to groundwater pollution. Consequently ICBA had been commissioned in 2010 by the Minister of Environment and Water to undertake a thorough analysis of twelve plants in inland areas and three plants in coastal areas in the United Arab Emirates to evaluate the performance of membrane technology, irrigation management and brine disposal practices. These research findings informed the practical workshop discussion about environmentally sustainable brine disposal options.
Water and crops
Integrated water management and the improvement of water use efficiency in the salt tolerant production systems in the UAE are essential strategies to meet the challenges. Salinity in the irrigation water is a main abiotic stress that causes yield and quality reduction for the key crops in the UAE: date palm and field forage crops. This is common to most of the countries of the Middle East and North African (MENA) region where water resources are becoming more affected by the climate change. Irrigation using saline water causes also soil salinization/sodization for at least 25% of the arable lands in the UAE and 85% in Kuwait. At the same time, there is an increasing need of water due to the increasing human demand for irrigation for the agricultural, domestic and industrial sectors. However, confined aquifers contain a limited quantity of water that is becoming more saline especially in coastal areas where sea intrusion is accentuated by the water pumping (for example, in the case of Al-Batinah region in Oman). Consequently, the use of marginal water resources is inevitable, but with profitable production systems adapted to salinity in order to reduce ecological impacts.
The most adapted systems are based on the cultivation of forage crops to support livestock production essential for farming systems of the region. During the last decade, ICBA selected the optimal production and management systems for various salinity levels encountered in the MENA and Central and West Asia and North Africa (CWANA) regions. These systems are based on field forage crops (including barley, triticale, pearl millet, sorghum, fodder beet, canola, cowpea, guar and sunflower) and shrubs (atriplex, acacia and sesbania), as well as perennial grasses (buffel grass, alfalfa, Sporobolus and Distichlis). Safflower is also recommended for the dry climates and is considered as a cash crop that has a high potential of marketing in the region. About 9400 accessions of 220 crop species were screened for salinity tolerance in various experimental systems (Petri dishes, hydroponic, pots and small plots). In addition, series of on-farm trials were set up in the UAE and other Arabic countries: Egypt, Jordan, Oman, Palestine, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen) and in central Asia (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Kurdistan).
During the field days there were many demonstrations of the selected production systems and the corresponding managements including the irrigation best practices. About 310 accessions were selected for cultivation under extremely harsh conditions in these regions and many international actions were achieved through multiple projects funded by various sponsors: Islamic Development Bank Group (IDB), International Foundation (IFAD), OPEC Fund for International Development (OFID) and Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development (AFESD). In addition, there were about 160 species (from 51 genera) that were identified in the UAE for a high potential for salinity tolerance and cultivation for conventional purpose and as medical plants. All of these crops introduce a high level of diversification in the farming systems so to increase their resilience to increasing salinity caused by adverse effects of the climate change. These field forage crops as well as the date palm (18 widely grown commercial varieties were tested at ICBA) are conventional crops that adapted to salinity levels varying from 5 to 15 dS/m, however shrubs and perennial grasses are non conventional and tolerate salinity in the irrigation water up to 30 dS/m (20 g/l).
ICBA tested many crop management systems aiming at obtaining the full crop potential under the UAE conditions. The adopted management systems focuses on enhancing early vigor of the grown plants and water productivity at the field level by 30-40% compared to the conventional systems. The recent development in smart systems for integrated field management were proven to be highly efficient for improving irrigation scheduling and monitoring
Alternative water resources such as marginal water sources and low-cost treatment processes need to be implemented. By using marginal resources effectively, efficiently and productivity, irrigation practices needs to be modified to conserve water and it intelligently and the soil system should be monitored to halt further salt salinity problems.
Soil Management and Monitoring
The importance of salinity monitoring to optimize crop production marginal lands was detailed for the workshop participants. Issues such as soil salinity development affecting the rootzone, the development of soil sodicity, soil structure loss, the subsurface hardness, poor nutrient use efficiency and crop failure due to the non-matching of soil salinity with the crop threshold level, are the problems in marginal saline lands. Successful soil management to overcome these problems is dependent on pre- and post-site assessment: to understand soil resource capacity to develop a successful soil management and use plan and then to ensure that site health is maintained.
In the closing ceremony which included participants thanking ICBA and their respective institutions for initiating the workshop, HE Dr Mariam Al Shenasi, Assistant Deputy Minister for Technical Affairs, Ministry of Environment and Water, stressed the importance of strategic alliances with international organizations such as ICBA to encourage the development of projects and programs ensuring the capacity development of national staff. The partnership between the Ministry and ICBA enabled the transfer of technology from ICBA scientific experts to benefit the Ministry staff, whom HE Dr Al Shenasi expected to apply the acquired knowledge and skills to their day-to-day endeavors.