There is however a darker side to LSIS and to irrigated agriculture as a whole, salinity, the mere mention of the word striking fear in the minds of irrigators and farmers. The general approach to managing salinity is that it is an accepted consequence of irrigated agriculture, particularly when practiced in semi-arid and arid regions. Further, land retirement or more commonly abandonment associated with salinization represents a significant underutilization of investments in infrastructure required to equip an area to deliver water. It makes sound economic sense to bring these salinized areas back into production.
Globally it is estimated that 34 million hectares are now impacted by salinityrepresenting 11% of the total irrigated equipped area, and it is estimated that annually 1.5 million hectares of arable land are lost due to salinity along with an estimated $11 billion in lost production. What if these lands were brought back into production. Assuming a conservative yield of wheat of 4 tons per hectare annually, the potential production generated would be 136 million tons of grainor approximately 20% of the global wheat production. This would effectively make a significant contribution to global food security and in particular the Middle East and North Africa.
One option is for governments in the MENA that are currently involved in ensuring national food security to invest in the rehabilitation of these lands. Through favorable terms and conditions these countries could be encouraged to invest in the rehabilitation of abandoned or underperforming salinized lands beyond their borders in return for ensuring food production from these lands. For example, the Central Asia countries of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan along with Iraq have LSIS that have significant areas of salinized irrigated lands. The concept would be a win-win for countries in the MENA region in that food security is ensured, whilst those countries with salinized irrigated land would benefits in the rehabilitation of an asset and over time would receive benefits/royalties generated through these rehabilitated lands.
There are clear benefits that would accrue in considering such an approach that go beyond just food security. Rehabilitating these lands would limit the lateral expansion of agriculture, ‘land grabbing’, displacement of people, and the additional costs in developing new irrigation schemes and associated infrastructure to both deliver water and move product to markets. It would support smallholder farmers that often predominate the LSIS and provide economic and market opportunities; it would provide employment opportunities; and reinstate the positive ecosystem service that LSIS provide.
Whilst there is a financial investment in rehabilitation, the costs will vary depending on the approaches taken. Further, by restoring these surface-based delivery systems there are opportunities to introduce improved water management approaches and agronomic practices that save water and increase productivity. For example, the mechanical raised-bed approach along with the associated agronomic practices that have been successfully trialed and out-scaled in Egypt resulting in 25% water savings and significant increases in yield. It is time to seriously consider rehabilitating salinized lands starting with feasibility studies. Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) would be willing to join hands with others to make this happen.