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An integrated response to aridity

May 20,2015

Can the initiative reverse years of degradation across the Arabian Peninsula?

Extreme aridity, water scarcity, and erratic rainfall – just some of the constraints facing farmers across the Arabian Peninsula. To help them cope, ICARDA is developing and distributing new technologies to maximize the efficiency of water usage, prioritizing innovations in forage production, rangeland rehabilitation, and protected agriculture.  

Smallholder farmers in the Arabian Peninsula region are severely constrained by the region’s extreme aridity, scant water supplies and erratic rainfall. Conditions have become even more challenging in recent years – an estimated 95 percent of the region’s land surface now faces salinization, or some form of desertification from wind and water erosion.

These problems are exacerbated by increasing population pressures, which is leading to the excessive use of underground water and a dangerous dependence on food imports, threatening the region’s food security.

Implemented in 1998, ICARDA’s Arabian Peninsula Regional Program works alongside regional partners to implement technologies along three main areas of impact: on-farm water efficiency; high value cash crop production; and rangeland rehabilitation and forage production. A recent project – Improving Food Security and Sustainable Natural Resource Management through Enhanced Integrated Agricultural Production Systems – has been making significant strides.

Project Innovations:  

Indigenous forage species with high water use efficiency provide an ideal solution to chronic water scarcity as they are naturally adapted to the region. The Project identified indigenous Buffel grass for its high water-use efficiency and superior feed quality, and validated technologies for its open field production. In comparison to the widely cultivated Rhodes grass, Buffel grass has less than half the average annual water requirement.

Spineless cactus requires minimum water to grow and can be combined with on-farm and agro-industry byproducts to obtain quality feed blocks even under drought conditions. With accessions delivered from Tunisia and a nursery established in Oman, the Program is now extending cactus to different agro-ecologies across the Peninsula.  

Protected agriculture is helping farmers overcome the region’s harsh growing conditions, developing a suite of innovations and optimizing them into an integrated production and protection management system based on a soilless culture. The result? Higher yields, better quality cash crops, and the reduced use of water fertilizers and pesticides. A cost-benefit analysis revealed an average 200 percent increase in annual profit/m3/year.

Rehabilitating degraded rangelands through a combination of approaches – including water harvesting, reseeding and protection. The project screens native forage species and pastoral plant varieties and uses GIS to monitor the performance of restoration initiatives. The Program also constructed check stone dams and contour stones, which have conserved soil and water run-off.

Strengthening national agricultural sectors

To ensure sustainable outcomes from research programs, ICARDA is investing in the two most fundamental needs for enabling a stronger national agricultural sector – capacity building and an adequate seed system.

Specialized training, workshops, and field days help impart skills to farmers, extension agents, and researchers across the region.

To address the constraints of seed availability for indigenous forage species, the project has established seed units in UAE, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman, and added seed health units in the latter three.

Moving forward …   

Moving forward, the initiative is building on these successes to strategically deliver technology packages suited to the production potential and constraints of the region’s two broad agro-ecosystems:

In higher potential areas – sustainable intensification and the diversification of production using protected agriculture technologies for higher and varied sources of income for smallholder farmers.

In marginal lands, building resilience in smallholder livelihoods.

The initiative is made possible from support provided by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development (AFESD).