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Volume 34, Number 5September/October 1983

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The Greening of the Arab East

The Planners

Throughout the Arab East this year, there was more than the usual springtime stir down on the farm. In the oases of Arabia, the valleys of Egypt and Jordan, and on the plains of Syria and Iraq the fields appeared greener and the crops richer. Even the war-weary farmers of Lebanon were back at work. To be sure, the fresh feeling in the air and the new look of the farms were largely due to the season or, in the case of Lebanon, to the end of open warfare. But another vital factor was the gathering momentum of an immense undertaking involving planners and planters in modernizing production processes and introducing new and better crops.

Because the Arab East was by-passed by the first "green revolution" - the 1960's agricultural breakthrough in which such new strains as Mexican dwarf wheat and the IR 8 "miracle rice" helped avert mass starvation in Asia and Latin America - Arab self-sufficiency in food despite huge investments in agriculture has, in recent years, appeared to be an ever-receding goal. Before 1970, the Middle East as a whole was a net exporter of both rice and beans, but must now import both and by 1985, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the Arab countries' import bill for grains and meat alone will total nearly $5 billion.

The Arabs' growing food deficit is not due to falling production, however. In fact, FAO says, the amount of food grown by Near East farmers has increased by an average of about two per cent over the last three years. But because of the growing demands and rising expectations of an exploding population - about 3.3 percent per annum - plus a massive influx of foreign workers to staff development projects, more and more imports have been necessary.

Today, there are signs that things are changing. For one thing, planners have proposed or developed new farming and irrigation techniques that enable crops to be grown even in sand. Furthermore their research has produced varieties of traditional staples of the Middle East, such as broad beans, lentils and barley, able to thrive in conditions of drought.

Planners have also adopted new attitudes toward the Arab East's inability to achieve its full agricultural potential. As Edouard Saouma, Lebanese director-general of FAO, put it: "The basic problem affecting food supply results from decisions made by governments and by individuals, not from uncontrollable or irresistible forces of nature. Solutions lie in new policies and new actions."

One new policy is an attempt to increase yields from existing farmlands by improving soil, crop and water management rather than concentrate on massive dams and desert reclamation schemes.

And as what one writer calls the "cultivation revolution" spreads, Arab planners can point with satisfaction to the fact that many of the experiments bringing it about were carried out in their own back yard - mainly by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) at its experimental station near Aleppo in Syria.

One of the newest links in a world-wide network to improve and increase food production, ICARDA began experiments with the basic crops of the Middle East in 1977 (See Aramco World, May-June 1978). Taking over where the Arid Lands Agricultural Development Programs (ALAD) left off, ICARDA's scientists have crossed the most hardy local crop varieties with high-yielding international varieties to produce plants that simultaneously resist disease and drought, tolerate high temperatures and salty soil, and produce a greater abundance of more nutritious food.

"We are not interested," says ICARDA's Sudanese Director-General Dr. Mohammed Nour, "in introducing newer crops such as asparagus or broccoli; rather we are concentrating on increasing the yield of basic food crops per hectare. Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon once were the granery of Europe. Now they are dependent on Europe for their food, but there is no reason why the area can't once more become the bread-basket of the Middle East."

Already helping to improve the staple diet of millions of people ICARDA-bred plants include five new types of high-yielding, better-tasting cereals that are currently being incorporated in the growing programs of 25 nations; new, more nutritious broad beans in Egypt and The Sudan, and, ICARDA's most sensational breakthrough, a new type of chickpea, another basic food of the Arab East known most widely for its use in the traditional dish hummus.

For millennia, chickpeas could not be sown in the Arab East before the end of February or the beginning of March because if planted during the winter the crop was affected by the Ascochyta blight. But now, thanks to disease-resistant genotypes developed by ICARDA, crops planted long before February not only flourish but have a yield fully 100 percent higher than spring-planted crops. Furthermore, since there is more rain before February than after, winter crops can be planted in much drier areas than the spring crops, thereby increasing the area of cultivated land.

Under such programs as the whimsical-sounding acronym FLIP (for Food and Legume Improvement Program), ICARDA has also developed new harvesting techniques for lentils, which reduce labor costs and make cultivation of stony soils economically feasible, and has trained over 250 agricultural scientists from all over the Middle East who are now helping improve their own country's food output. Meanwhile, at the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research, marine scientists have refined techniques for breeding shrimp commercially - dramatically increasing the prospect of shrimp farming to replace declining catches in the Arab Gulf due to pollution, over-fishing and destruction of coastal breeding grounds.

Another Arab-inspired force in the greening of the Arab East - as well as elsewhere - is the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). Set up in 1977 at the urging of Arab oil producing states, IFAD is unique among international development institutions in that its mandate focuses on the rural poor. In the words of its Saudi Arab President Abdelmuhsin al-Sudeary, IFAD "attacks the development constraints affecting small farmers and the landless." One of the most innovative and effective development institutions in the world, as one publication described it, IFAD is backing 12 agricultural development projects in the Middle East - all, says al-Sudeary, "people-based and poverty-based."

Such small holdings are viewed by planners as vital to the greening of the Arab East. "The small farmer is more successful," explains al-Sudeary, "because their livelihood is at stake - they cannot afford to lose." Planners, in fact are increasingly looking to the private sector to advance agricultural development. At the initiative of Saudi Arabia, where the public and private sector partnership in farming is already firmly established, the first-ever convention of Arab businessmen and investors agreed in Taif last year, to set up an agricultural holding company to participate with Arab governments in all stages of food production - from land reclamation to marketing.

In addition to such international agencies as ICARDA, IFAD and FAO, numerous Arab agencies are also gearing up to fight the growing food deficit. Among them are the Arab Company for Livestock Development in Damascus, the Arab Union of Fish Producers in Baghdad, the Khartoum-based Arab Sugar Federation, the Company for Arab Agricultural Development, also headquartered in The Sudan, the Arab Federation of Chemical Fertilizers Production in Kuwait and the Arab Union for Food Processing Industries. Also playing a large part will be the Arab Center for Arid Lands Research in Damascus with research stations near Aleppo and elsewhere.

Following approval by Arab governments this spring of an initial $5 billion expenditure, these agencies hope to launch, by the end of the year, the first of over 150 national and multi-national agricultural projects spread throughout 13 Arab states, and expected to cost $33.3 billion, of which about $12 billion is to be spent by 1985 with the rest spread over the next 15 years. Under the aegis of five inter-Arab economic, labor and social organizations - the Council for Arab Economic Unity, the Arab Organization for Agricultural Development and Investment, the Arab Organization for Industrial Development, the Fund for Economic and Social Development and the Arab Labor Organization - these agencies and related federations will play a key role in carrying out this "blueprint" for the future food security of the Arab World.

To some observers, no doubt, these seemingly innumerable agencies may seem excessive. In fact, they are far outnumbered by the problems they have been set up to solve. As Dr. Nour puts it, "The region's needs are urgent; time is short to catch up with the high birth rate."

The number one problem, of course, is aridity; the Arab East includes some of the driest regions on earth. But, FAO reports, other problems too are edging to the fore, including "land degradation" defined as "the partial or total loss of productivity from the land either quantitatively or qualitatively or both, as a result of soil erosion by wind and water, salination, water logging, sedimentation, depletion of plant nutrients, deterioration of soil structure and pollution."

Since the 1970's, land degradation has already wiped out huge areas of cropland in Africa, exposing 100,000 people to starvation. Similar conditions threaten areas of the Arab East too. Dr. Farouk el-Baz, an Egyptian geologist who directed spacecraft photography of the earth's resources (See Aramco World, November-December, 1976), says for example that a great sea of sand is moving towards the Nile Delta at about 13 kilometers a year (eight miles), and according to FAO, wind erosion has affected 28.1 per cent of the region's surface area, water erosion 24.3 percent, and salination 5.3 percent. Together, these problems can seriously complicate the already massive challenge facing planners: the need to either increase crop yields from land now under cultivation, or increase the amount of land that can be put under cultivation.

Most of the methods of increasing crop yields, such as controlling the environment in which they grow are relatively new, but one of the most effective methods is almost as old as agriculture itself: fertilizers, the application of additional nutrients to the soil.

Until recently, most fertilizers were derived from natural substances: compost, manure, bones, wood ash, fish, guano and other organic wastes. Today, however, the emphasis is on chemical fertilizers, especially nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, the three key elements in plant nutrition. Though far more expensive and more complicated to produce - they're extracted from minerals such as potash, or from petroleum gases - chemical fertilizers have had a significant impact on crop yields in the Arab East. In fact, a recent FAO study shows that fertilizers were responsible for more than 50 percent of all crop-yield increases in the developing countries between 1965 and 1976 - and that output in the same areas would drop substantially without them.

For the oil producing countries of the Gulf, fertilizers- which once had to be imported - are no longer a problem, since many of them have built fertilizer factories of their own. Qatar, for example, produces 1,000 tons of urea a day from gas, plus fertilizers from organic waste, and Saudi Arabia, which is already self-sufficient in nitrogenous fertilizer, has just built a urea plant with an output of 500,000 tons a year (See Aramco World, November-December 1982). Most of this output will be exported to neighboring Arab states still not self-sufficient in fertilizer.

As for putting additional land into cultivation, Arab planners are following two tacks. One involves a technique called "dryland farming," which is transforming barren areas of Iraq, Syria and Jordan into fertile cereal belts. The other is based on massive extensions in irrigation, which, FAO estimates, could almost double the cultivatable land in the region.

Introduced in Mesopotamia and the Nile Valley some 6,000 years ago, irrigation was initially little more than painstakingly dug modifications of natural water courses. As the centuries passed, however, irrigation networks in Mesopotamia increased in size and complexity, and under the Sumerians and Akkadians reached a surprising level of technological efficiency; they involved dikes, canals, aqueducts and various lifting devices such as the water wheel and the leveraged bucket. According to Robert Mc C. Adams, an archeologist, Mesopotamian irrigation peaked just before the Islamic period with the linking of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, an achievement, Adams wrote, that was "neither matched nor superseded before modern times."

In the seventh century, unfortunately, poor administration by the ruling Sassanians and a disastrous flood in A.D. 628 began to undermine the system so that a century later, according to Adams, nearly 10,000 square kilometers (3,800 square miles) had been abandoned. Under the later Abbasids dissolution continued and then, in the 13th century, came the coup de grace: the Mongols under Hulagu Khan, destroying not only the irrigation network, but also transporting most of the skilled engineers who had maintained it to Central Asia. The canals quickly silted up, the land whitened with salt and the once-fertile fields reverted to desert - conditions which still prevail: only 13 percent of the 437,000 square kilometers (166,250 square miles) of present-day Iraq is considered arable and 32 percent of that must be irrigated if it is to be cultivated.

In the Arab East, this is not unusual. Lack of water has always limited farming in this area - and demanded imaginative solutions. About the seventh century B.C., for example, a people called the Sabeans built the great dam and distribution system at Marib in today's Yemen Arab Republic (see Aramco World, March-April, 1978), and by Roman times the Nabateans had built catchment dams at Petra - some of which have been recently restored - along with aqueducts, reservoirs and pressure-piped water. Elsewhere, there were other solutions - such as the gravity-fed aflaj systems in the Arabian Peninsula (see Aramco World, May-June 1983), underground channels, some up to 15 kilometers long (10 miles), linking water sources to fields. A technological triumph, this system prevents water loss from evaporation, and is still a widely-used form of irrigation in many arid countries; in Oman, for example, some 4,000 aflaj still provide most of the irrigation and domestic water supplies in rural

Today in the Arab East, the planners are trying or considering even more imaginative solutions. In Saudi Arabia, for example, where the Saline Water Conversion Corporation has $10.2 billion to develop water resources under the current Five Year Plan, scientists are studying the use of sea water for irrigation - a method that could revolutionize agriculture in the kingdom's arid coastal regions. Although still in its early stages, university research in Saudi Arabia has already shown that plants can be grown using salt water with concentrations as high as 32,000 parts per million - the same salinity level as the Red Sea. Though yields are low, scientists hope that by genetic engineering they can eventually produce salt-resistant strains of economically important crops that could be grown on the vast area of presently useless sand dunes along Saudi Arabia's lengthy coast.

Another radical idea once considered, but subsequently dropped was the possibility of towing icebergs to the Red Sea from Antarctica and using the melting water to supply drinking water to cities and irrigation to farms along the coast. Though still impractical, and abandoned by Saudi Arabia, two American scientists prominent in "iceberg-water" studies, W. F. Weeks and Malcolm Mellor insist that icebergs might yet provide a feasible and economical solution to the lack of water - particularly for countries like Saudi Arabia - which, they said, "must consider all possibilities..."

In fact, Saudi Arabia is considering all possibilities. Planners are already looking into the possibility of importing water from Japan in oil tankers - a proposal discussed this May at a United Nations seminar. Japan has an enormous surplus of fresh water in the northern third of the country, and also dispatches at least one empty super-tanker to Saudi Arabia every day for oil. Since just one 400,000-ton oil tanker could carry nearly 360 million liters (95 million gallons) of water each trip - which works out to about 72.1 liters (19 gallons) per Saudi Arab a day for all usages - tankers, with no change in present shipping schedules, could bring close to 133 billion liters (35 billion gallons) of water to the kingdom annually.

Apart from studying such new methods of overcoming water deficiency, Arab governments are conducting massive investment programs to improve and expand old and already-tested ways of obtaining and conserving water; methods such as dams, pipelines and desalination plants.

In February, this year, for example, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia inaugurated a pipeline that conveys water inland from the world's largest desalination plant at al-Wusta, near Jubail on the Arabian Gulf, to Riyadh, a distance of nearly 500 kilometers (310 miles). An even longer pipeline - 600 kilometers (373 miles) - is planned to carry water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq, across lava flow deserts and mountain ranges to neighboring, water-deficient Jordan.

One of the most rapidly expanding methods of producing fresh water in the Middle East is by de-salting sea water, and, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development, one-third of the world's desalination plants are now located there. In Saudi Arabia, desalination has expanded from two plants treating 576,000 liters of water a day (127,000 gallons) in 1960, to 11 plants processing 1.9 billion liters a day (500 million gallons) today, thus releasing vast quantities of natural water, consumed by cities and industry, for agricultural use.

In addition to these sources, Saudi Arabia can also tap massive quantities of water in what are called aquifers: formations of porous waterbearing strata of rock and sand deep in the earth.

Until the 1930's, when Aramco began to drill for petroleum, few people realized the extent of the underground water resources in the kingdom. But in the early 1960's, in a report called A Study of the Wasia Aquifer in Eastern Saudi Arabia, Aramco geologists informed the government that the Wasia aquifer probably contained enough water to meet the kingdom's needs for years to come: some 200 trillion barrels of water (see Aramco World, July-August 1967). Furthermore, the report said, there were other aquifers almost as large. One aquifer mentioned in the report was the 2,519-meter-deep Turabah aquifer (7,400 feet), thought to be the deepest source of water in the world at that time.

Saudi Arabia is not the only Middle East country turning to water in aquifers. At one experimental wheat farm in Abu Dhabi, 90 deep wells are tapping aquifer water to feed its spraying system, and in 1977 geologists in Egypt announced the discovery of one of the world's largest aquifers: a reservoir 610 to 1,220 meters below the surface (2,000 to 4,000 feet) stretching from the Libyan border to the Red Sea. It is so big, geologists say, that it could "revolutionize" the economics of the Western Desert.

Since the initial discovery of such aquifers, however, conditions have changed dramatically in the Middle East. In the oil-producing countries, multi-billion dollar modernization programs have created new cities and reconstructed old ones, developed industries, modernized housing and built hospitals, schools and universities - all needing water. Also, programs to modernize agriculture have introduced such technology as great rotating booms that spray crops at the rate of 8 liters (2.1 gallons) a second. The net result has been a drop in ground-water levels.

To countries tapping the aquifers, this was troubling news since aquifer water, or "fossil water" as it is called, is irreplaceable; it has been accumulating at a glacial pace for eons and once used up will be gone forever. In some countries the loss was almost immediately apparent: seawater in Qatar is already encroaching on freshwater aquifers at the rate of one kilometer a year (0.62 miles) and the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has had to ban all further drilling of water wells in the country's northern regions.

In Saudi Arabia, to be sure, the quantities of water in the aquifers are still immense. Nevertheless, concerned planners, worried that efforts to expand agriculture might inadvertently start to drain the aquifers, drew up a national conservation program that, among other things, governs the use of aquifer water. Given the enormous requirements of the new agricultural projects, the effects of these restrictions probably will not solve the water-table problem immediately, but do show the concern expressed by a Ministry of Agriculture and Water executive: "We cannot afford to let a single drop of water go to waste."

To prevent waste, Arab countries are exploring various techniques of conservation. Dirt ditches, for example, which traditionally have fed irrigation water to fields throughout the Arab East - losing, in the process, about 30 per cent through seepage and evaporation - are being replaced by elaborate networks of underground pipes and sprinklers and concrete-lined canals. In Abu Dhabi, wastage is being tackled by an even more radical method; here agricultural scientists have laid a thin carpet of asphalt one meter (three feet) beneath farmland - not only preventing irrigation water from penetrating too deeply into the soil, but simultaneously preventing salts seeping to the surface.

To conserve rainwater - 83 per cent of the land in the Arab East receives less than 100 millimeters a year (four inches) - most Arab countries have also built dams, or are planning to build them, on whatever rivers and water courses they have. Saudi Arabia has built more than 50 small dams throughout the kingdom, Jordan is planning a major dam on the Zerka River, and Syria has constructed a mammoth dam at Tabqa, north of Palmyra. The second largest dam in the Middle East, the Tabqa Dam, 4.5 kilometers long (three miles) is expected to double the total of irrigated land in Syria.

One of the most efficient of the new irrigation methods being introduced into the Arab East is "drip" irrigation, whereby water laden with fertilizers and nutrients is fed under pressure through small-bore plastic pipes and delivered at controlled rates of quantity and frequency to the root zones of each plant. The advantage of this method is that the farmer can give his crop its exact requirements on a regular basis using the minimum amounts of water, fertilizer and labor, yet at the same time obtain a greatly increased yield - as much as 10 times the output of a farm watered by traditional flood irrigation. The planners, of course, have not always achieved all the results they expected. Despite imagination and money, some very promising proposals have yet to live up to expectations. Arab planners, for example, were disappointed in the failure of programs launched in The Sudan, the one Arab country with unlimited agricultural potential. The Sudan was once slated to become the "breadbasket of the Arab world" (SeeAramco World, May-June 1978) under a 1975 blueprint combining Arab "petro-dollars" and western technology. According to the original planners, Sudanese farms could be providing 42 per cent of the Arab world's total vegetable oil consumption, 58 per cent of its meat and 20 per cent of its sugar needs by 1985.

Such plans, it should be said, are still thought to be viable, but so far few of the projects launched to implement them have gotten very far - largely because The Sudan simply does not have the trained manpower and infrastructure necessary to get huge, technologically complex programs started. As a result, half-completed projects are not uncommon and the Khartoum government has had to organize a reform program to complete or consolidate the new projects and also restore the country's traditional income from cotton.

On the other hand, even The Sudan has scored some notable victories. One project that succeeded - despite a lack of roads to the site - is construction of the world's second largest sugar mill and refinery at Kenana, 322 kilometers south of Khartoum (200 miles). Two years after inauguration, its production has surpassed 200,000 tons and, if all goes well, should reach peak capacity of 333,000 tons by 1985 - a reminder that The Sudan, under the right conditions, can fulfill the planners' dreams.

Another Sudanese project that has been quietly proceeding despite enormous problems is the Jonglei Canal - one of the greatest hydrological undertakings of the century. By April the 278-kilometer canal (173 miles) was nearly half dug and much of the earlier hostility by nearby peoples - who expected severe dislocations and ecological damage - had been dissipated. Even better, unforeseen opportunities for work and food production had begun to surface.

The main purpose of the Jonglei Canal, which will run from Bor to Malakal, is to save some of the enormous volume of Nile River water; an incredible 4.8 billion cubic meters a year is now diverted into the great swamp called the Sudd - where it evaporates. By carrying water around the Sudd and emptying it back into the Nile, the Jonglei Canal will add an immense amount of water to the Nile's already tremendous flow and help irrigate a proportionate acreage of new Egyptian farmland. In addition it will open up some 81,000 hectares (200,000 acres) of Sudanese land to farming, and five million acres of pasture land. Last, an unanticipated bonus, it will make it possible for the peoples of the area to develop a fishing industry. The Sudd's fishing wealth is being developed by an FAO fisheries team, which has already set up two 80-man cooperatives.

Such projects, of course, require great amounts of money - as well as farsighted, imaginative planning. The planners, for instance, have begun to experiment with "remote sensing," a form of "color enhanced" photography called "imaging" from satellites. Imaging, scientists say, can pick out vegetative growth and traces of ancient water channels - aids to tapping aquifers on a national scale. This is important in the search for water because aquifers often extend over vast distances which normal aerial photography cannot capture or evaluate. For planners, even the leading edge of technology can be sharpened for use in greening the arid lands of the Middle East, and guaranteeing enough food for all their peoples.

This article appeared on pages 4-13 of the September/October 1983 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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