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Learning from Ztouti’s Farm: Nuclear Technology Helps Crops Grow in Morocco’s Salty Soils

Marrakesh, Morocco. In the midst of land near this bustling city that’s dry and virtually barren lie the green pastures of Hassan Ztouti, a Moroccan farmer. Although the soil on Ztouti’s farm has too much salt in it, his crops are thriving—thanks to nuclear technology.


Nuclear technologies are helping farmers in arid zones to further refine biosaline agriculture—cultivating useful plants in salty soils and with brackish water.

For more than three years, Ztouti’s farm in the Sed El Masjoune region of Morocco has served as a demonstration site for growing plants in saline soils—a discipline known as biosaline agriculture. Under the programme, scientists from Morocco and other nations use proven nuclear techniques and applications to learn about the complex interrelationships between soils, water and plants.

“We need to better understand the composition of our own soils, and that will help us tell farmers how and where different types of salt tolerant plants can grow best,” says M’hamed El Khadir, a microbiologist with Morocco’s National Institute of Agronomic Research (NIAR). He conducted experiments at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s agriculture and Biotechnology Laboratory in Austria. The IAEA is sponsoring the multinational effort through its Technical Co-operation Programme and has drawn on expertise from the eight countries involved.

The Moroccan institute, which is supporting the work on Ztouti’s farm, tapped a new well for the demonstration project. Although the water is brackish, it nourishes salt-tolerant plants such as eucalyptus, acacia and olive trees and a mustard-type plant called rapeseed. Based on the success of the project, the government is digging another saline well to irrigate more demonstration plots.

Once the well is tapped, the aquifer will be studied, mapped and monitored. Among the questions that scientists and hydrologists need to address are: Is the aquifer big enough to irrigate an expanded plant demonstration site? How is it recharged? How salty is the groundwater? What’s happening to the soil when saline water is applied repeatedly? Using such analytical tools as neutron moisture gauges and radioactive isotopes, they will be able to answer these questions.

“We couldn’t make a decision on site expansion without the data,” says Abdel Ilah Ambri, a soil scientist who heads the department of environmental physics at NIAR. “Once farmers start the new plants, we need to know there will be enough water to sustain them in the soils here.” Ambri is the IAEA’s main counterpart for the project in Morocco.

Worldwide, nearly 80 million hectares have soil too salty for the survival of most crops. That’s an area roughly the size of Pakistan, another country in the IAEA’s project where saline soils also pose big challenges for agriculture. “Many farmers today are growing salt-tolerant grasses for forage and for improving the land, and they’ve found that many other plant species perform very well,” says Dr. Mujtaba Naqvi, the IAEA consultant coordinating the IAEA project and former head of Pakistan’s Nuclear Institute for Agriculture and Biology. “We’ve found the way ahead, and now experience needs to be shared.”

One way of reclaiming saltlands is to practice biosaline agriculture, the approach being used on Ztouti’s farm in Morocco, and by farmers in Pakistan, Tunisia, and other countries engaged in the IAEA project.

A Pioneer in Turning Salt Wastelands Green

From Morocco to China, Canada to Australia—as a result of human activity, irrigation, or removal of tree cover—77 million hectares of land, an area twice as big as Germany, is devastated by salt and salt water, according to the FAO. The advance of salinity renders three hectares of land barren every minute, the FAO estimates.

“No one uses salty water in agriculture. You normally dig channels and take it out of the system,” says Dr. Mujtaba Naqvi, a Pakistani biochemist and consultant to the IAEA. “But now we have shown that it is possible to grow economically useful plants, such as barley, varieties of wheat, dates, and olives, in saline wasteland using saline ground water.”

Dr. Naqvi, former head of Pakistan’s Nuclear Institute for Agriculture and Biology, has spent more than a quarter of a century exploring the possibilities of using salt ground water in agriculture working with an international network of scientists.

It has taken the accuracy of tools provided by nuclear science and technology, close observation of nature, and in the case of Dr. Naqvi, tenacity and passion, to achieve the startling results. With support from the IAEA and with technical advice from Dr. Naqvi, 30 salt tolerant plants, from pistachio trees to barley and acacia, were selected and are growing in Pakistan’s salt lands, and in arid saline regions of Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Iran, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Algeria.

Salt tolerant plants were carefully chosen by using neutron moisture gauges, which provide an accurate measurement of the amount of water in soil samples by detecting the amount of hydrogen. The gauges also provide data that helps prevent the problem of salt accumulation in the soil. The IAEA initiated the project, helps to train experts, and continues to provide technical advice. Pakistan’s government has approved the establishment of a 15,000 hectare area where saline soil agriculture will be further developed. Even larger projects are planned.

To provide the food for the Earth’s growing population, the FAO calculates that in the next 30 years over 200 million hectares of additional agricultural land will be needed. Shortages of fresh water may also force agriculture to adapt to coastal zones and make use of sea water for irrigation to grow crops.

“The growth of plants in salt lands improves soil quality and provides green cover that conserves moisture and helps prevent erosion and desertification,” explains Dr. Naqvi. The results of his research are likely to have an increasing large impact as both fresh water and good farm land become precious throughout the world.

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