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Transforming Pakistan´s Salty Soils

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Over one million acres of Pakistani wasteland is becoming thriving farmland, with the help of the Pakistani Government and IAEA assistance. The Pakistan Government is rolling out US $3 million over five years to transform its desert soils into food producing plains, as part of its National BioSaline Agriculture Programme.

Water for farming is scarce in this arid country. But innovative use of nuclear science and technology is turning that around. Known as "biosaline agriculture", this technique cultivates salt tolerant crops, trees and fodder grass that are nourished by brackish water. Essentially it turns abandoned land into economically valuable land.

Hundreds of Pakistani farmers are already reaping the benefits. "It gives the local people an income," says Mr Jorge Morales, IAEA Interregional Projects Manager. "They are now able to grow crops, or grass to feed their livestock. In some cases plants are grown to stop erosion," he said. Every day 2,000 square meters of farmland in Pakistan becomes desert - exacerbating large-scale poverty, as people lose the land they once farmed to erosion.

"Initially it is impossible to believe that anything could grow in such wasteland. Not surprisingly the locals - who have been farming the land for 100s of years - do not believe it at first either. So demonstration farm sites are set up to grow the salt tolerant species. When they see the results, the neighboring farmers soon begin planting these seeds," Mr Morales said. The programme will be extended to eight districts in four provinces - covering 1.2 million acres of land.

The new commitment by the Pakistan Government stemmed from an IAEA programme that supports nine countries to grow economically useful plants in rugged terrain using saline groundwater and salt tolerant plants. IAEA assistance ranges from locating and tapping the salty water sources used to irrigate the plants, to advising on what species to grow in the area and helping to cultivate and supply the seed.

Barley, wild olive and wheat are among the salt resistant crops being grown. "Only two percent of the many salt tolerant species we know about are being used. The potential to benefit lives and land is great," Mr Morales said. Already the living conditions of many local farmers and their families have improved due to this low cost technology. Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Morocco, Syria, United Arab Emirates and Tunisia are also participating in the programme.