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Volume 34, Number 5September/October 1983

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The Greening of the Arab East

The Planters

By the wreckage of a bombed-out house in Lebanon this spring, a farmer named Youssef Sarkis paused in his work, leaned heavily on his hoe and said wryly, "If I had a house, I'd invite you to sit down and drink coffee."

Sarkis, however, doesn't have a house. Like most houses in his area - Damour - it was destroyed during the eight years of war and invasion that have ravaged Lebanon and left its fields, orchards and plantations stripped or burned.

Throughout Lebanon similar conditions have been reported. In the rich Bekaa Valley, for example, half of Lebanon's entire agricultural output will be lost this year, according to government sources, because of continuing tensions and problems left by years of conflict.

Yet there is some progress - thanks to men like Youssef Sarkis and other Lebanese planters who this year, for the first time since 1976, have returned to the Damour Plain, a narrow strip of fertile land by the sea 20 kilometers south of Beirut (12 miles), where, before the war, the scent of orange blossoms perfumed the air and rows of banana trees marched to the edge of the Mediterranean and the banks of the Damour River.

Up at dawn each day, Sarkis makes his way to Damour through the military checkpoints that ring Beirut and usually works until dusk; he is nursing a new crop of banana trees to replace those cut down during the war. And he is not alone. Down the road, his neighbor, Tanious Matni, was just as busy. The first farmer to return to Damour after the 1982 Israeli invasion, Matni was already harvesting his first crop of cucumbers and tomatoes - grown in newly-erected plastic greenhouses - this May.

Eventually, Sarkis and Matni hope to rebuild their bombed-out homes and bring their families back to Damour. But their first priority is the land. "The plain is our base," explains Jamil Chkaiban, head of a cooperative formed recently by the farmers of Damour to recultivate the once-luxuriant Damour plain. "If we don't rebuild the plain we can't get credit to rebuild our houses."

Rebuilding will not be an easy task. The orchards and banana plantations for which it once was famous have all been destroyed and will take years to restore. There are many unexploded bombs in the fields and as fast as the farmers patched up the plain's dilapidated irrigation channels this spring, tanks and other military vehicles damaged them. But the most pressing problem is finance. "We have nothing - not even tools," says Chkaiban.

Some help has already been forthcoming from a somewhat unexpected source - the United Nations Save the Children Fund. "Parents' incomes are at the root of all children's problems," explains Dr. Andre Karem, the fund's Beirut director. "We work with the farmers so that the needs of their children will be taken care of." So far the fund has given some 40 loans to farmers in Damour totaling about $100,000. Meanwhile, a much bigger aid package was being put together by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD): more than $32 million to repair rural roads, distribute cows and goats to dairy farmers and extend credit to apple growers. And even this is a drop in the bucket compared to the farmers' total needs. The years of conflict in Lebanon have had a disastrous effect on the country's agriculture - destroying orchards, damaging irrigation networks, decimating livestock and driving farmers from their lands. As a result, says the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), $244 million is needed over the next five years to rehabilitate Lebanese agriculture.

The first step in that rehabilitation, says Samir Abujawdeh, adviser to the Minister of Agriculture, is to resettle the rural population. "We must get them back from the slum areas that have grown up in the cities... and this can only be done if we provide them with the same benefits as their countrymen enjoy in the cities." Mr. Abu Jawdeh is confident, however, that Lebanese agriculture can bounce back. "We have the means - the sun, the water and the know-how. All we need is peace."

One unexpected problem is that even if peace is fully restored, some of Lebanon's farmers are unlikely to return to their land since the massive urban construction programs that are planned have sent the prices for farmland on the outskirts of the cities skyrocketing. "The farmers are selling their land, putting the money in the bank and living on the interest," says Axel Bailie, FAO's chief representative in Lebanon. "They can earn far more that way than they can from any crop."

Again, though, FAO can report some progress, thanks to the fact that there are ways to make more money from farming than from real estate speculation: growing crops under glass. "Only greenhouses can compete with land speculators," explains Bailie, "because the farmer can grow up to eight times more in them than he can outside."

Today's greenhouses, as it happens, are built of plastic or fiberglass rather than glass, but the effect is the same: a controlled environment. And they are already being used extensively throughout the Arab East - particularly in those countries where conditions are extreme. Saudi farmers, for example, are having considerable success raising cucumbers and tomatoes in enclosed, environment-controlled conditions. They even do it without using any soil.

Perhaps the most-revolutionary of the new growing systems to sweep the Arab East, this technique is called hydroponics. In one type of hydroponics called "NFT" - nutrient film technique - plants are grown in plastic troughs through which runs a plant food and fertilizer solution. Housed inside plastic or fiberglass greenhouses, where temperature, humidity and sunshine are regulated by automatic systems, crops of tomatoes and cucumbers can be harvested just four to 10 weeks after planting. Although such installations are expensive, they are much more efficient and less wasteful than conventional growing methods and are ideally suited to Middle East countries where capital is plentiful but labor and water are short.

In many such ventures in Saudi Arabia, farmers are gearing up for an annual production of 40 kilograms per square meter of tomatoes (88 pounds) and 60 kilograms per square meter of cucumbers (132 pounds) - eight times the yield of a traditional farm. One Saudi dairy farm even has a back-up hydroponics facility that, in the event of a conventional fodder crop failure, is capable of growing from seed one ton of fresh grass every eight days.

Another greenhouse-growing technique being introduced to Arabia is "sand culture" - the cultivation of plants in pure sand irrigated with a nutrient-packed drip. The advantage of using sand - apart from the obvious fact that there is plenty of it - is that, unlike soil, it is relatively salt free. Although less expensive and easier to operate than hydroponics, sand culture yields similar results. At Saudi Arabia's al-Hasa oasis, for example, crops of sand culture-grown cucumbers are flourishing in two 1,000-square-meter fiberglass greenhouses (10,800 square feet), in which the original soil, containing 20,000 parts per million of salt, had been replaced by sand, containing only 3,000 parts. Nutrients dissolved in water are fed to the plants every four hours by drip irrigation to make up for the lack of nutrients in the sand, and temperature and humidity kept at optimum levels by large fans that suck air through water-soaked pads in the wall of the greenhouse.

Since plastic and fiberglass greenhouses play a key role in vegetable production in arid areas of the Arab East - but at the same time are restrictive and relatively expensive - Gulf planters are constantly on the lookout for new ways to save both space and costs. Several new techniques now under study are based on the interdependence of different crops. In one such method, pole beans and corn are grown close to each other so that the beans climb round the corn stalks, thus saving space, while at the same time the beans, which produce nitrogen in their roots, help to fertilize the corn - which needs nitrogen. Another scheme uses water pools in which floating styrofoam boards hold lettuce plants, and melons are grown on A-frames over them. Catfish are raised in the pools and their waste provides nutrients for the lettuce and melons. When the lettuce boards are removed at harvest time, the melons can be shaken off into the water unbruised, thereby reducing the need for expensive manual labor.

A new method of outdoor farming being introduced in some parts of the Arab East is "dryland" farming - a technique enabling wheat to be grown without irrigation on land that receives as little as 5.9 centimeters (15 inches) of rain a year. In Iraq, for example, dryland farming is transforming land once considered infertile into viable farms. At Erbil, in the north, the Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform is developing 5,000 hectares of land (12,350 acres) and at Jezierah, west of Mosul, a further 10 million hectares (24,700 acres). Despite initial results reported as disappointing - because of an exceptionally dry year - the ministry has high hopes for this method.

Originally developed on the Great Plains of the United States, dryland farming differs from the traditional fallow method - growing grain one year and nothing the next - in several ways, Traditionally, the farmer would have left his field bare when not growing grain - which cannot be grown on the same land each year - leaving the soil unprotected against erosion by wind and flash floods. In dryland farming, after harvesting his cereal, the farmer lets sheep or other livestock graze on the field, their manure serving to regenerate the soil then the clover-like plant of the alfalfa family - called "medic"- is planted, to "fix" nitrogen needed in the soil, and, at the same time, bind the particles of earth together, preventing soil erosion, and also provide fresh fodder for the livestock. The farmer then replants his field with grain.

Although ingenious efforts at soil conservation have been made in the Arab East since early times - such as terracing in Lebanon and southern Arabia - soil erosion and other forms of land degradation (gathering firewood and over-grazing), are today major problems in the region. According to a UN survey, no less than 98 percent of the Near East is subject to desertification, and urgent efforts are now being made to reverse this process.

One of the most effective efforts involves trees - which can grow in the desert. In the northeast corner of Saudi Arabia, for example, an ambitious tree-planting project is underway, the creation, in effect, of an artificial oasis in one of the world's driest regions. The tree planting - actually a massive landscape project - is part of the eight-year construction of the King Khalid Military City, a brand new city being built from scratch in a remote part of the kingdom that experiences the full range of arid zone climatic extremes - temperatures reaching 45 degrees centigrade (112 degrees Fahrenheit), rainfall averaging a paltry seven centimeters annually (2.5 inches) and winds up to 60 kilometers an hour (37 miles per hour). The planters, therefore, had to carefully select trees that, while being both functional and ornamental, would survive wind, heat and aridity, tolerate high salinity, grow rapidly and require minimal care. Eventually, the specialists came up with a list that included the Australian pine, the Arizona cypress and the Jerusalem thorn as well as native eucalyptus, tamarisk and acacias.

The planters had also to carefully prepare the soil, eventually arriving at a balanced mix of sand, silt, and clay with a slight addition of acid for eucalyptus and acacias. Irrigation, too, had to be carefully controlled to avoid saturation; if the soil is constantly kept wet, root deterioration is likely to result. The planters decided on a cycle of two to three days on, and two to three days off to prevent waterlogging, which causes root rot and builds up salt when too much water is applied to saline soils like those found at King Khalid Military City. To remove excess water, and salt, an underground network of pipes was installed much like the ones used in normal drainage of streets, except that they are perforated, thus providing a second level of drainage.

With maximum daily wind velocity in the range of 10 to 20 knots - and up to 30 knots three months or so per year - one of the key aims of the greening scheme is to provide protection from wind-borne dust and debris. Indeed, creation of windbreaks is one of the most important aspects of the tree planting scheme.

To reduce the wind and intercept flying particles, planting is arranged progressively in the windbreak. At ground level, tough bedding plants, primarily succulents, are used to break and lift the wind as well as to trap any debris at ground level, and at the next level hardy shrubs of varying heights continue to lift the wind and also filter sand and dust. Next comes a first baffle of evergreens, then taller deciduous trees, and finally, a third baffle, also of evergreens, and rows of small deciduous trees which reduce the turbulence immediately leeward of the tall evergreens and provide final filtering.

Further out, the landscape plan provides a large-scale belt of trees also aimed at controlling wind and dust, but providing a recreation area too, as well as a sector for future residential expansion. Located immediately beyond the city's perimeter road, this area is to be graded in ridges and hollows, in order to effectively control wind, assist with supplementary irrigation and encourage surface vegetation.

Although still in its early stages, the King Khalid Military City tree-planting project qualifies as an innovative effort to apply present-day technology in irrigation, under-drainage and plant propagation to an arid zone. It also explores the possibility of developing artificial oases and adapting them to the demands of the 20th century.

Another major problem plaguing planters in the Arab East is soil salination, the accumulation of salts in soil. The greatest potential hazard to any irrigation project, it results from the application of either too much or too little irrigation water. If too little water is applied, salts accumulate near the surface because there is not enough water to wash them away, while if too much is applied the soil becomes waterlogged and, as it evaporates, leaves a white, life-killing crust on the fields.

One area where this problem is particularly acute is Syria's Euphrates Irrigation Project. An enormous undertaking even by international standards, this project, which includes the great Tabqa dam is the backbone for economic development in eastern Syria. Aside from producing electricity and creating a fishery, the giant dam was to have enabled the country to irrigate an extra 640,000 hectares of land (1.6 million acres) during the next 30 years - more than double the present amount.

Salination in Syria is a problem that goes back to the Sumerians; their fields were frequently abandoned because of salinity. And today, despite modern methods of coping with this problem, fully 50 percent of Syria's land in the Euphrates region is affected by some degree of salinity. Since work on the dam began in 1974, original plans to irrigate 240,000 hectares by 1980 (593,000 acres) had to be curtailed because of soil salination.

Since 1981, therefore, the emphasis has been not on how fast the project moves, but that it moves in the right direction - with particular attention being paid to water and soil management. New irrigation networks are being built and new farms planted on the foundations of past experiences - using, for example, small basins, in which irrigation water can be controlled, rather than furrows, where it cannot. With these problems nearly controlled, agricultural experts say, it is not unrealistic to expect positive results from Syria's Euphrates project in the near future.

In Iraq too, bold steps are being taken to restore the ancient land of Mesopotamia - birthplace of organized agriculture - to its former fertility. Fully one-third of investment funds in the government's last two Five Year Development Plans have been earmarked for agricultural programs, such as desalination and mechanization of production methods, and so far, the results have been encouraging: 36 irrigation projects were completed under the first Five Year Plan (1976-80), including 20 in the Tigris Valley and 13 on the Euphrates River, providing water for a total of five million hectares of new land (12 million acres).

Egypt too is trying hard, but the results are sobering. Although the country has already reclaimed over 900,000 hectares of "new lands" (2,244,000 acres), mainly along the desert fringes of the Nile Delta, less than 60 per cent of the reclaimed land is actually being farmed. The rest has been lost to urban expansion, new industries and roads, and possibly as little as 35 percent is being cultivated with a margin of profit.

According to IFAD, the principal problems have been faulty technical design of irrigation systems, poor construction standards - which have led to rapid deterioration of works - and bad management. As a solution IFAD is proposing closing down state farms, rehabilitating irrigation networks and turning over reclaimed lands to small landless farmers. "Comparative studies of cases where settlement has been carried out have shown that smallholders have consistently outperformed the state companies in terms of yields, cropping intensities and soil amelioration," says IFAD.

IFAD's first target is none other than the West Nubariya Agricultural Company (WNAC) a company intended to be a model of mechanized state farming in the Nile Delta. WNAC has been running up an operating loss on the order of $142,000 a year due to low productivity. By shutting down WNAC and converting its 84,000 hectares of reclaimed land (207,500 acres) into owner-occupied smallholdings, IFAD not only hopes to produce substantial food supplies for local markets and specialist crops for export, but also to provide a livelihood for some 10,000 people - compared to WNAC's 2,500.

Furthermore, IFAD hopes that settlements of smallholders will set a "valuable precedent" - as an alternative to large state farms - and presage a policy which "recognizes the fundamental contribution which small farmers can make to national economic progress."

The small farmer is already playing one key role in fighting the Arab food deficit - by assisting agricultural scientists in "on farm" research into faba beans in the Nile Valley of Egypt and northern Sudan. One of the main staples of the region, faba beans are used to make ful   medammas, a breakfast and supper dip, and falafel, a tasty sandwich. Numerous constraints, however, limit faba bean yields, including pests and weeds, and the conflict of planting and harvesting times with those of other crops. As a result local production is unable to keep pace with growing demand.

The aim of the Nile Valley Project, which is organized by ICARDA and financed by IFAD, is to increase faba bean production by closing the gap between yields obtained at research stations by scientists and those obtained by farmers in their fields. To do this, Egyptian and Sudanese scientists are comparing new ideas and technology with the farmers' own time-tested methods - and finding that the best results are produced by a combination of both. Results of on-farm trials, for example, have shown that the greatest net return from the smallest operating capital is achieved by combining the recommendations of the scientists on variety, weed control and planting methods with the traditional ways of irrigation and pest control used by the farmers.

The Nile Valley Project has four more years to run, but it has already shown that working together the planners and the planters may one day close the gap not only between their respective outputs but also between the quantities of food grown and the amount eaten in the Arab East.

This article appeared on pages 14-23 of the September/October 1983 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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