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Country water actions are stories that showcase water reforms undertaken by individuals, communities, organizations, and governments in Asia-Pacific countries and elsewhere.
Pakistan: Scientists Find Ways to Live With Salinity
Soil salinity in Pakistan has been boggling scientists for years, until the country’s agricultural biotechnologists discovered ways of making good use of the vast saline wetlands and its salty ground water. A breakthrough technology now makes growing crops using brackish water possible. BIO-SALINE: A BIOTECHNOLOGICAL BREAKTHROUGH After more than a decade of research and experimentation, Pakistan is now learning to live with salinity. Pakistan’s Nuclear Institute of Agriculture and Biology (NIAB) has developed a new “bio-saline” agricultural technology that puts the so-called “saline wastelands” to good use. The method calls for introducing salt-tolerant trees, grasses, and other crops through plant succession to improve the soil in the country’s vast saline areas. These soil-tolerant plants, which can have a profound effect on the physical, chemical, and biological make-up of the soil, are irrigated using abundant salty groundwater. Soil salinity is carefully monitored so as not to allow salt buildup. “We now have evidence that the vast saline areas or the socalled wastelands can be used for growing fodder, fuel and other raw materials by using salt-tolerant plant species,” says Riaz A. Waheed, Principal Scientist at the Pacca Anna Bio-Saline Research Station near Faisalabad, one of two research stations trying out the new technology. The other is in Rakh Dera Chahl near Lahore. “Along with different species of trees and grasses, we are also growing plants like barley and wheat, and fruits like pomegranates, using the underground saline water on what used to be the saline wasteland,” he adds. “We have to learn to live with salinity as there is no other way.” SALINE WASTELANDS IN PAKISTAN Almost 11 million hectares of land in Pakistan has salt deposits, making the land unsuitable for normal agriculture. Roughly 16 million of Pakistan’s 160 million people live in regions with salty water or saline soils. Scientists estimate that finding a way to cultivate on this land can contribute up to an annual US$2 billion to the country’s economy.
Pakistan began research to address soil salinity in 1972 when it set up the Nuclear Institute for Agriculture and Biology (NIAB) in Faisalabad to develop scientific facilities and expertise for solving the problems of crop production and conservation. As adequate supply of good quality surface water is scarce in Pakistan, finding ways to use salty water for irrigation has become imperative. NIAB, together with its two research stations, has found the way. BARREN TURNS GREEN The research station at Pacca Anna has demonstration plots that spread across 400 hectares. Pacca Anna residents can’t help but believe what has been as good as a miracle. “This land was completely barren about two decades ago but now it has turned completely green using water that is otherwise useless,” says Muhammad Ali, a 60-year-old resident. The soil at Pacca Anna is highly saline and the salinity varies depending on the water table. The scientists test both the soil as well as the salt levels in water before using it for irrigation. Soil salinity is caused by the rise in the water table, which results in the salt being deposited on the surface. The conventional approach in tackling the problem was to pump out the underground water and wash the plant root region with fresh water. However, this technique was good only as long as there was adequate fresh water for flushing the fields. “The only other option is to irrigate with saline groundwater,” says Iqrar Ahmad Khan, Chief Scientist and Director of NIAB. “We have found ways to cultivate the land using the same saline water to irrigate the plants.” NIAB has already carried out trials with several dozens of species of Eucalyptus, Casurina, Acacia, Brassica, and other plants which can grow even in extreme saline conditions. “The greenery you now see is the result of 15 years of patient work and trying out of different techniques and waiting,” Khan said.
TRANSFERRING THE TECHNOLOGY In 1996, The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) initiated an Inter-Regional Model Project on the “Economic Utilization of Saline Wastelands and Brackish Water for Crop Production.” NIAB plays a major part in the on-going project by sharing information and expertise with countries that have similar soil salinity problems. NIAB has been using Bio-Saline technology for agriculture on saline soils at five other locations in Pakistan, each covering 5,000 acres and involving small and medium farms. With its collaborations with different agencies including the IAEA, the Australian Center for International Agriculture Research (ACIAR) and other United Nations agencies, it would not be long before small farmers can use NIAB’s Bio-Saline methods. Two training workshops for farmers on the use of the technology have been held thus far.
_____________________________ Based on the article of Aoun Sahi, Asia Water Wire journalist The views expressed in this article are the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), or its Board of Governors, or the governments they represent. ADB does not guarantee the accuracy of the data included in this paper and accepts no responsibility for any consequence of their use. Terminology used may not necessarily be consistent with ADB official terms.
*This article was first published online at ADB's Water for All website in May 2006: http://www.adb.org/water/actions/PAK/Scientists-Salinity.asp. The Country Water Action series was developed to showcase reforms and good practices in the water sector undertaken by ADB’s member countries. It offers a mix of experience and insights from projects funded by ADB and those undertaken directly by civil society, local governments, the private sector, media, and the academe. The Country Water Actions are regularly featured in ADB’s Water for All News, which covers water sector developments in the Asia and Pacific region.