A Pioneer in Turning Salt Wastelands Green
From Morocco to China, Canada to Australiaas a result of human activity, irrigation, or removal of tree cover77 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 Pakistans 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 Pakistans 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. Pakistans 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 Earths 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.