To help its farming communities, Morocco has teamed with seven other north African and west Asian countries in research and demonstration of biosaline agriculture on drylands like those in Sed El Masjoune. The partnership is the cornerstone of an IAEA model project initiated in 1997 for a six-year period through the Agency's Technical Cooperation programme.
One core objective has been to show farmers how to properly apply saline and fresh groundwater for irrigating plants that tolerate salt conditions and are economically useful. Besides supplying feed for sheep, goats, camels, and mules, the mix of salt-tolerant plants can be used as sources of biomass fuel, fertilizer, and industrial raw materials. As importantly, the greener fields bring refreshing signs of life to harsh and hot environments, helping to conserve soil moisture, slow erosion, and brake encroaching desertification.
Joining Morocco in the project, now into its second three-year phase, are countries where farmers face similar challenges tilling fields in arid and semi-arid zones - Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Pakistan, Iran, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates. Project managers there are moving to establish or expand demonstration sites where plants are cultivated by local farmers on plots of ten hectares or more. In Iran, sites are being expanded to about thirty hectares, for example; Pakistan is eyeing up to 5000 hectares; and Morocco is digging another saline water well at Sed El Masjoune to irrigate more demonstration plots initially covering about twelve hectares of the vast dirt-road plains.
"We're monitoring up to 25 wells here," says Mr. Abdel Ilah El Hattami, an agro-engineer with the Provincial Agricultural Directorate in El Kalaa des Sraghna, as he pinpoints the sites on a topographical map. Digging the wells mostly by hand, workers with shovels, picks, pails, and drills can take up to forty days to tap the saline aquifer more than fifty meters below, he says.
Their labour is an essential factor of Morocco's biosaline equation. Once tapped, the aquifer can be studied, mapped, and monitored. Is it big enough to irrigate an expanded plant demonstration site? How is it recharged? How salty is the groundwater? What's happening to the soil? Scientists and hydrologists using analytical tools including nuclear and isotopic techniques will answer these and other questions in studying the groundwater's dynamics and monitoring soil and plant conditions.
"We couldn't make a decision on site expansion without the data," says Dr. Ambri of INRA. "Once farmers start the new plants, we need to know there will be enough water to sustain them in the soils here."