The land is dry and hot, the farmers determined and proud. They come on foot, by bicycle, by motorbike, by mule to farm once abandoned fields and bring them back to life. They´re succeeding a crop at a time, with the help of nuclear science and technology. Syria´s saltwater crews near Deir Ezzor are showing other farmers that wastelands, if farmed in the right way, can bring productive harvests to communities. Their toil is helping to shape the country´s agricultural future.
From Damascus to Deir Ezzor and beyond, Syria´s 15 million people depend on farmers working the irrigated valleys of the Euphrates river, the country´s lifeline. But most of the land can´t be used for food crops because the soils contain too much salt. Problems trace back to the 1960s, when cotton was introduced as a bumper crop, without measures to control soil salinity. Today, the cotton fields are gone, but the salt remains as a legacy blocking agricultural development. About 40% of all arable land is too saline to sustain plant growth, and thousands of hectares are still lost to salinity each year.
Conditions are changing. With IAEA support through an interregional technical cooperation project, Syria´s Atomic Energy Commission (AECS) is working with the country´s Ministry of Irrigation and other bodies to help farmers reclaim dry and dusty saltlands. They are working together at home, and with counterparts in other countries engaged in the IAEA project where people face similar agricultural problems. The focus is on growing crops that tolerate saline soils and water, and in many cases, can thrive if farmed and managed correctly.
"Countries like ours need to follow this path," says Dr. Khalaf Haji Khleifeh, an AECS scientist helping to coordinate Syria's participation in the interregional project. "Scarcity of water and the spread of saline soils are considered the main impediments to agricultural development."
Syria´s main demonstration site is at the 800-hectare "7th of April" Farm on the outskirts of Deir-Ezzor, a city on the Euphrates about 500 kilometres from Damascus. There, Mr. Farhan Habbas and his 12-member crew farm about 15 hectares of saline land. The fields were once so salt-crusted and barren they looked to be covered with snow, he recalls.
Today, water lines linked to a new pump and well snake through rows of green fields. Crops are fed by saline water from groundwater basins mixed with river water drawn from nearby irrigation canals of the Euphrates. Nuclear-based techniques add to the ecological equation. Isotopes used as tracers help characterize water sources, for example, and instruments called neutron probes help scientists monitor soil moisture and crop conditions. They provide valuable feedback data to optimise irrigation and drainage so that salt leaches away rather than settles near roots to thwart or stunt plant growth.
Findings guide the field work of the saltwater crew. By hand and machine, they sow the seeds, till the irrigation channels, and harvest crops, including barley, Eucalyptus trees, acacia bushes, and forage plants such as Kallar grass, atriplex, and Sesbania for feeding sheep, goats, and mules. For the next growing season, new lines of wheat brought from Pakistan are going to be sown and tested.
"The farmers smile, especially for barley", says Dr. Khalaf. The barley´s mainly used as animal feed, he points out, and by a local brewery.
The work at Deir Ezzor points the way toward a better farming - and environmental - future. Already the site has become a training hub for local farmers and technicians - as well as a new sanctuary attracting long-lost wildlife, from birds and snakes to rabbits and foxes. They offer another visible sign of real and potential benefits to local communities from expanding this new approach to agricultural development.
Plans now call for a bigger investment to develop a National Biosaline Agriculture Center at Deir Ezzor. Based on an IAEA-proposed strategy, the center would support government aims to reclaim wastelands in other regions of the country - a sign that more smiles could be on the way for the nation´s millions of farming families.
For more information about the IAEA interregional project - known as INT/5/144 "Sustainable Utilization of Saline Groundwater and Wastelands for Plant Production" - contact the IAEA Department of Technical Cooperation.