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SALT and water in the soil render nearly a third of Pakistan’s cultivable land unproductive. It’s a big problem for a country with a large agrarian economy.

To be precise, of the 20.8m hectares of cultivable land in the country, 5.33m hectares are affected by salinity and 1.55m hectares by waterlogging (the saturation of soil with water), according to a study by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

The continuous seepage from the network of unlined irrigation system over the years and a lack of natural drainage have resulted in increased groundwater levels. This has led to waterlogging of large tracts of soils along rivers, canals and distributaries, and the evaporation of excess water from the surface of adjoining soils has made them saline.

The government has tried to eliminate the problem through sinking tube wells and developing surface and subsurface drains under several drainage projects throughout the country. However, the efforts haven’t borne fruit due to several reasons: the drainage/reclamation approach, besides being costly and energy extensive, also suffers practical implications such as environmental degradation and disposal of brackish drainage water.

The annual cost of crop losses from the problem has been estimated at between Rs15bn and Rs55bn

The FAO study says that the reforestation of salt-affected soils is possible with the help of proper site preparation, choice of species and the development of nursery and planting techniques.

Profitable agricultural crops cannot be produced in several areas due to the specific location, nature of ownership, paucity of good quality water and refractory soil. However, fertility level can be improved by growing nitrogen-fixing trees.

The International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) says it has prepared a project to find a comprehensive solution to control salinity and mitigate its effects on the agricultural land.

The project has already been submitted to the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) for funding. If the project is materialised, the ICARDA will work in collaboration with Punjab and Sindh to resolve the issue.

The centre has taken steps to assess the extent of salinity and its damaging effect on crops, and to find ways to minimise or control salinity, says Dr Muhammad Aslam, the soil fertility expert leading the project at ICARDA.

At a dialogue organised by the FAO, experts suggested that due to the intensive use of poor quality groundwater, the problem of secondary salinisation is also being accelerated on an area of around 2m hectares and it warrants a reassessment.

Moreover, at a national policy dialogue on salt-affected soils in Islamabad it was stressed that economic utilisation of the salt-prone soils with innovative and viable practices, assessment tools and policy interventions are need of the hour.

Meanwhile, a project funded by the United States Department of Agriculture is providing a baseline atlas of current soil fertility practices, disaggregated by farm size and cropping systems.

The project is aimed at improving soil health and soil fertility in Pakistan, primarily through agricultural extension activities.

The atlas is expected to help in understanding the required soil fertility management changes for sustainable agricultural intensification. Consequently, appropriate balanced inputs and 4Rs — right fertiliser at the right rate at the right time in the right place — would be promoted in partnership with the private sector, including national fertiliser companies, wholesalers, retailers and farmer associations.

It will also identify current methods and specific practices being used by farmers in Punjab and Sindh to fertilise soil for selected crops. Cooperation between the public and private sector will be developed to disseminate messages to farmers aimed at improving proper application of fertiliser and to reduce misapplication, and to help ensure fertiliser inputs are used in a cost-effective and sustainable manner.

The US Agency for International Development has already issued funds worth $3m for the three-year project, being implemented by the Ministry of National Food Security and Research, ICARDA and Pakistan Agricultural Research Council.

According to a review of the available knowledge on land degradation in Pakistan carried out by ICARDA, almost half of the soils affected by various types of salinity and sodicity is in Punjab, 40pc in Sindh and 9pc in Balochistan.

The annual cost of crop losses from salinity in Pakistan has been estimated at between Rs15 billion and Rs55bn. This is in addition to the Rs15bn estimated to have been lost from the land that has been rendered unproductive, according to an ACIAR report.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, July 17th, 2017