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Volume 29, Number 3May/June 1978

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Farming in the Sand

Written by John Lawton
Illustrated by Norman MacDonald

Outside the Fertile Crescent, farming in the Arab East is a perpetual contest between man and nature. On most of the Arabian Peninsula - one of the most arid regions on earth - rainfall is scant, and much of it runs off into the desert sands or quickly evaporates. Yet in Saudi Arabia, the largest and driest country on the Peninsula, current agricultural advances are among the most innovative and most dramatic in the Arab world.

More than 1,000,000 square miles in area, the Arabian Peninsula contains almost no perennial rivers or streams, and its southern section is covered by one of the largest deserts in the world - the inhospitable "Empty Quarter." Until modern technology could reach deep into the earth for well water, therefore, farming in Saudi Arabia was necessarily confined to areas where water was found near the surface: in dry river beds or natural springs. Wherever water did exist, however, there was intensive cultivation. On the terraced hillsides of the southwest, for example, farmers in the 16th century began to grow and export coffee and at al-Hasa oasis, one of the oldest in the world, they have grown the vital date palm for centuries. (See Aramco World, March-April, 1978.) Until relatively recent times, the date palm provided a pivotal staple food throughout Arabia. Ancient farmers also grew alfalfa, wheat, barley sorghum, rice and millet.

With the initial search for oil, and the introduction of modern drilling technology some changes in traditional agriculture - and later in patterns of consumption - occurred in the Eastern Province. And today with petroleum revenues at high levels and with a government dedicated to improving agricultural output, change is a way of life on virtually every farm in the kingdom. "Nowhere in the world," says an Irish cattleman working in Riyadh, "is a government giving more support to farmers."

This support is transforming every aspect of agriculture in Saudi Arabia. With other ministries providing the immense infrastructure essential to modern farmers - roads, electricity housing and social services - experts from the Ministry of Agriculture and Water are launching projects bearing directly on farming: irrigation, reclamation and distribution of land. The ministry is also providing seeds, saplings, herbicides and fertilizer; training and supervision in modern farming methods; and, in 1976 and 1977, subsidies totaling $120 million and loans totaling $140 million.

Despite such efforts, Saudi Arabia, in 1977, was still importing most of its food. But its massive investments in agriculture are already beginning to pay off. Locally-laid eggs, for example, were once a rarity, but are now available everywhere, and poultry farms are producing some 150 million eggs a year, many of them on huge, environmentally controlled poultry farms that are springing up all over the country. As natural climate and soil play no part in the production process - the fowl grow up indoors, completely sheltered from the fierce sun, and are fed on food concentrates - this type of farming is particularly suitable for Saudi Arabia's weather conditions.

Investments in dairy farming have been equally successful. In Riyadh recently fresh, pasteurized milk from Saudi herds went on sale for the first time. The milk comes from a string of six farms near Riyadh and in the Qasim area, a region which a Dublin-based firm finds ideal for intensive dairy farming. "We surveyed the whole Middle East and decided Saudi Arabia was best suited to our system," says Cahal Magee of Masstock, the company which operates the farms.

Like the hens, the cows are kept in environmentally controlled sheds, in which their waste falls through slatted floors into underground tanks and is drawn off to fertilize nearby fields - where fodder is grown to feed them. Free from the stress of varying temperatures, the animals give three times the milk of animals kept outdoors, and calve more easily too.

The fact that the fodder must be grown in sand does not bother the company at all as long as there is water, says Magee, adding that water on Masstock farms is provided by wells and sprayed over huge, disk-shaped fodder fields by long revolving arms - a measure instituted to prevent soil erosion.

Experts at Masstock, which also operates 600 farms in Europe, believe there is "great potential" in Saudi Arabia. They have backed up this belief by buying a 30 percent equity in four of the farms they operate, and by managing the other two on a profit-sharing basis. Their latest, and largest, venture is an 8,000-head dairy farm at Haradh, in partnership with the Saudi government. "We are totally committed," says Magee, "to the success of dairy farming in Saudi Arabia."

This attitude is warmly endorsed by the Saudi government which, according to Abdul Latif al-Ajaji, director general of the al-Hasa Irrigation and Drainage Authority, has had its fill of "no-risk" foreign farming firms that just want contracts to manage farms. "They expect the Saudi farmers or the government to put up all the money while they simply collect their management fee whether the project is a commercial success or not."

Al-Ajaji speaks from hard-won experience in the al-Hasa oasis. Years ago the government of Saudi Arabia invested large sums of money in an elaborate program to save the oasis and its farms from extinction. Dunes up to 20 feet high had already swallowed five of its 52 villages and were advancing at the rate of 30 yards a year until the government planted some four million hardy tamarisk trees on the dunes near the villages. The government also set about reclaiming oasis land - lost to farming by centuries of unscientific irrigation - and through its Saudi-staffed Irrigation and Drainage Authority made considerable progress.

The reclamation problem, studies showed, stemmed from an irrigation system which distributed fossil water - believed to be 17,000 years old - from 60 springs through a network of ditches. Because of improper drainage, much of the water accumulated in saline swamps or evaporated, leaving a white, life-killing crust on the fields. Dying inwards from the edges, Saudi Arabia's largest oasis had shrunk to less than 15,000 acres of cultivated land..

To revitalize the oasis, irrigation specialists built a total of 820 miles of concrete viaducts that weave in and out of the palm groves in an intricate pattern of main and subsidiary channels carrying fresh water to a total of 40,000 acres of land. They also established a 900-mile network of drainage canals and constructed new roads to give farmers easy access to their fields.

As a result, the central section of the L-shaped oasis is today a - vast garden that produces 30 kinds of crops, including vegetables and fruits, grown in cool corridors between towering date palm trunks. Around its reclaimed edges sturdy young palms have taken root and lush green alfalfa spreads out toward the protective swaths of tamarisk trees, with the corridor between the swaths earmarked for range land. More importantly farmers once driven from the land by sand and salt are today moving back to it.

One key factor in the victory of al-Hasa was a readjustment by farmers and land-owners - not always willingly made - to new arrangements. Land-owners where the 35 springs surfaced, for example, once controlled the water supply and were sometimes reluctant to accept today's system - which distributes water free according to each farmer's needs.

To help train farmers in new methods, the al-Hasa Irrigation and Drainage Authority adopted a subtle and simple approach. Instead of trying to persuade the farmers to read text-books, the Authority showed locally made films and set up demonstration fields among the plots of oasis fanners. And as an incentive to change, the Authority offered prizes to better-run farms.

Initially, the farmers' response was slow. "You cannot change overnight," says al-Ajaji, "the methods and mistakes of years." By 1978, nevertheless, the reclamation project was definitely making progress and the Authority had begun to open the new land to cultivation. Some of it, of course, will be given over to local fanners. But in conjunction with an effort to establish more productive farms, most of the new land will be farmed by foreign firms experienced in large-scale modern agriculture.

To attract such firms the Authority offers incentives like a free supply of water and the government-financed infrastructure. But the chief incentive is the demand for fresh produce in the oil-producing Eastern Province, where the kingdom's huge Five Year Development Program is expected to boost the population dramatically by 1980, when vast industrial complexes now under construction start operating.

To assist the government in its efforts to improve agriculture in the Eastern Province, Aramco has recently established a 300-acre mechanized demonstration farm on which it hopes to raise eight million pounds of fresh produce per year, supply part of the needs of Aramco and nearby communities, and simultaneously train Saudi farmers in mechanized techniques. And although, as late as January, 1978, the dusty, dead-looking earth of that farm looked far from promising, experts on the scene were brimming with confidence. "Come back in eight months' time," said one, "and there will be rows of lettuce growing here."

In Dhahran, Aramco has also introduced an agricultural system known as "hydroponics" - the cultivation of plants without soil. Instead of soil, the plants are grown in plastic tubes with running water in which plant food is dissolved. A pilot project, the hydroponics experiment is already producing crops; housed in three humidity-controlled greenhouses, crops of tomatoes and cucumbers have already been harvested eight and five weeks respectively after planting - with striking results. "I've never," said a Dhahran housewife, "tasted a better tomato."

Elsewhere in the Eastern Province - at Qatif, 13 miles northwest of Dhahran - Saudi Arabia's farming specialists solved another agricultural problem stemming from an excess of water. The second largest oasis in the Eastern Province, Qatif was adequately watered by freeflowing artesian wells, but because the flow of water was both continuous and uncontrolled, and because the drainage system was inadequate, the land had become waterlogged, salts had risen to the surface and many farms had become less productive or had been abandoned. In addition - as the availability of drilling rigs led farmers to drill still more wells - the artesian pressure had fallen and it was feared that the free-flowing water might eventually be exhausted.

As in the case of al-Hasa, it was the Saudi government that moved in to save Qatif, sealing off dozens of uncontrolled wells, installing a complete irrigation and drainage system and, eventually, reclaiming more than 10,000 acres of cultivatable land and assuring the economic future of the oasis.

Adequate water, of course, is the vital factor in all agriculture. But as rainfall in most areas of Saudi Arabia is scarce - and in some areas nonexistent - the problem is particularly acute. In al-Hasa and Qatif, for example, virtually all of the water comes from aquifers: geological strata of permeable rock and sand containing water, located between 300 and 1,400 feet below ground; and although the on-going search for water has recently located several huge "new" aquifers with vast amounts of water, Saudi Arabia's approach has been cautious because the expansion of agriculture depends almost entirely on these finite natural underground water resources, rather than on rainfall.

After an intensive study of the underground water resources, for example, the kingdom has recently drawn up a National Water Plan and a conservation program which reserves natural water supplies - from the aquifers - for farming and will meet domestic and industrial needs with man-made supplies, that is, by de-salting sea water. To achieve this goal the original appropriation for water in the Five Year Development Plan has been nearly doubled - to $19.3 billion, most of it allocated to increasing desalination capacity.

By comparison, the appropriation for agriculture itself is a modest $11 billion because, officials explain, there are fairly strict limitations on the amount of money this sector can absorb.

The single most important aspect of the program is the increase in irrigated areas from 288,000 acres to 448,000. As part of the effort to achieve this, numerous dams have been, or are being, constructed in all areas where there is rainfall and particularly in the mountainous Asir Province near the Red Sea coast.

In Asir, in the southern monsoon region, torrential rains have sent floods across the fertile coastal plain called Tihama for centuries. Several years ago, therefore, the government completed a major dam across the Wadi Jizan (see Aramco World, March-April 1974). A thousand feet long and 133 feet high, with a maximum storage capacity of 18 billion gallons, the Jizan Dam has helped block the seasonal torrents that once swept down the wadi, washing away topsoil, uprooting plants and seeds and even drowning livestock and destroying homes on the plain below. In addition the Jizan Dam also collects and stores the water for later use. As a result the Tihama plain may develop into the richest agricultural region in the kingdom, particularly when an interlocking series of irrigation and development projects is completed". With support on that scale the region's traditionally skilled farmers are expected to improve and I increase their output of sorghum - a key food, and a source of animal fodder - and to expand their range of crops. Cotton, for example, is being grown experimentally and there are plans to introduce such crops as corn and peanuts, as well as sugar cane and such exotic fruits as papaya and mango. Other plans call for the establishment of nurseries to grow eucalyptus and tamarisk trees - key weapons in the world's newly intensified struggle to halt advancing deserts.

At the opposite end of the kingdom the area surrounding the Great Nafud Desert is a vast steppe-land once eminently suited for grazing but, ravaged by droughts, now in an economic decline. About 37 percent of the area's population is nomadic, and, as elsewhere in the kingdom, special attention is being given to integrating these Bedouin tribes into the national economy.

As water is as fundamental to pastoral development as it is to agricultural expansion, the Saudi government is leaving no stone unturned to maximize utilization of its limited supplies. Studies, for example, are being carried out into possibilities of recycling city sewage water for agricultural use. For as Deputy-Minister of Water Abdullah Gholaykh observes: "We cannot afford to let a single drop of water go to waste."

This article appeared on pages 21-29 of the May/June 1978 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1978 images.