Features: Saline Soils

The Fields of Ain El Atti

ABOUT A DAY'S DRIVE THROUGH THE SNOW-PEAKED ATLAS MOUNTAIN RANGE and 400 kilometers northeast of Sed El Masjoune, rows of eucalyptus and acacia trees sway in the breeze at Ain El Atti on the rocky, barren outskirts of the Tafilalet Province oasis. It's home to what might be described as Morocco's "biosaline nursery", the first site set up under the IAEA project in 1997 to test under local conditions salt-tolerant seeds imported from Pakistan and sown as seedlings.

The past four years have seen eucalyptus grow to four meters and more, and flowering acacia cover what once were wind-swept dusty fields. Every week, Mr. Mohamed Mansouri, the site's keeper, opens the irrigation channels that bring brackish water from an artesian well to plants sown in sun-baked soil. Some of the land registers a salt content as high as one-third of that measured in seawater. The channels stretch hundreds of meters, regulating the water's path and flow from the old crusted uncapped well tapped ten years ago. It still delivers seven liters of groundwater a second, day and night, Mr. Mansouri says.

How much water the nursery's plants receive is vital to their fate, requiring soil, plant, and water assessments and accurate interpretations of results. The science extends to monitoring tests using neutron probes and other instruments that track a string of interrelated agricultural variables, including water salinity, soil moisture, and each plant's health and growth.

"We try to follow a holistic approach through these experiments to better understand the interrelationships between soil, plant, and water," explains Dr. Ambri of INRA, who manages the IAEA project in Morocco. When using saline water for irrigation, for example, quantity is one major factor. "The basic idea is to water the plants with a calculated amount that's enough to leach the salt below the plant's active root zone," he says. Over the course of a typical year, the nursery's plants receive about 24 times more saline water from irrigation than rainwater from the sky, he says. Rainfall there averages a scant 60 to 100 millimeters a year.

Eucalyptus

Trying to keep the soil-plant-water triangle in balance at Ain El Atti demands a range of expertise, and detailed studies that provide farmers with the knowledge they need to cultivate selected plants. A group of specialists and scientists from INRA and the Regional Agency for Agricultural Development, known as ORMVAT, support the project's multiple dimensions. They include Mr. Kouider Barhmi, an INRA soil physicist; Mr. Mohamed Beqqali, an INRA specialist in soil fertility and physical chemistry; Mr. Mohamed El Allam, an INRA soil scientist; Mr. Moutaouaki El Ghali, an ORMVAT agronomist; and Mr. Mohamed Ourahou, an ORMVAT agro-engineer.

Still, not all the experiments have achieved desired results. More than two dozen varieties of cereal grains, including barley and wheat, were tested over the past four years. Most performed well the first year, but then succumbed to the elements over time. "We found that these cereals just don't tolerate salt at the levels seen here," Dr. Ambri says.

Trees and shrubs have been a different story, which could be good news for the country's agricultural development. Their potential productive uses are varied: eucalyptus, for example, can provide fuelwood for homes and pulp at paper mills. Acacia and eucalyptus flowers attract bees, which opens possibilities for honey production. The shrub called artiplex, which grows well even in highly saline soil, can be grown as a fodder crop.

For INRA's Mr. El Allam, who heads the tree and shrub experiments, the results are encouraging and instructive. He received the seeds from Pakistan, cultivated them at INRA's nursery in Rabat, and then planted the seedlings at Ain El Atti. Now he's looking for more plant seeds, even as INRA tests indigenous seed varieties in saline soil research. "It's been much easier to work with seeds of plants already growing well in saline soil," he says. "Morocco has acacia and eucalyptus trees, but they are not the same species as those in Pakistan and tend not to do as well."

Steps taken at Ain El Atti are leading toward more productive agricultural research and development of Morocco's saline lands.

"What we need is support to expand the nursery here," says Dr. Ambri, "to more visibly show what can be done and improve our capabilities to produce seeds from the plants we grow."

The IAEA project has been a "key catalyst" for driving national support and awareness of biosaline agriculture and its development, he adds. With greater national and international support, he thinks much more could be achieved to engage farmers and agricultural communities, as well as managers of industries requiring agricultural raw materials.

"They have to see the potential economic benefits," says Dr. Ambri, "and the demonstration sites can help show them the possibilities."

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