Feast or famine in rural Kazakhstan

01 Feb 2016

  A new crop: Testing out drought resistant watermelons in Kyzylorda

by Dina Teltayeva

Rice grows best in moist conditions.

It can’t grow in arid areas unless the field is properly irrigated. This is why 90 percent of the land in the dry region of Kyzylorda, is kept irrigated.

The only problem is that this area has also always been Kazakhstan’s biggest rice producer and provider for the other Central Asian countries, with the bulk of its economy relying on it.

The question I had – as I stood in a field in Kyzylorda for the first time in my life, talking to farmers about new drought-resistant methods – was this:

Why would anyone choose this drought-prone land to grow water-intensive rice?

A legacy of the past – says UNDP land management expert Firuz Ibragimov. In the Soviet Union a decision was made to determine which crops could be grown best and where.

Kyzylorda was chosen for growing rice based on the analysis of soil and climate and proximity to the Syrdarya River. At that time the region was abundant with water and there was no need to build artificial water reservoirs in Kazakhstan. According to Ibragimov:

“Presently, however, a lot of Central Asian countries, now independent, have created plenty of water reservoirs for water security. This has led to a drastic reduction of water in Syrdarya. Water shortage was further exacerbated by climate change and the shrinking of the Aral Sea. Drought was made up for by the use of excessive amounts of water and led to salinization of soil.”

Rice, it turns out, is a great soil improver. It uses a lot of water, which takes away mineral salts from the soil and clears it of harmful chemical contaminants.

However, using excessive amounts of water can have a reverse effect because evaporation creates more salt and leads to repeated salinization and further deterioration of soil.

This led me to a second question: How can farmers find a middle ground here?

The Ybray Zhakhayev Rice Research Institute based in Kyzylorda is working with UNDP to figure just that out. They’re plotting pilot rice paddy fields to show how simple changes to longstanding agricultural practices can substantially improve the crops.

For example, they’ve installed automated water metres to compute water use on a 0.2 км² plot of land. The meters were made from a plumbing hose and a calculator, costing around US $10. UNDP project manager Yerlan Zhumabayev explains:

“Normally farmers like sticking to their usual work routines and are reluctant to try out something new because they fear that it will ruin their crops. But inexpensive innovations like these are a good opportunity to move away from running the risk of losing seasonal crops.”

Another new approach introduced to farmers by UNDP is a laser levelling system. A lot of the times, arable soil is bumpy and moisture unevenly spread. A farming device eliminates bumps on the surface and allows for an event distribution of moisture. This helps to have higher yields.

The third practice that UNDP shared with farmers was methods to help with diversification.

Drought is a farmer’s worst enemy. So, to determine what drought-resistant crops could be grown in the area, UNDP and the Institute are testing out different seeds that are known for their drought-resistance qualities such as sunflower, flax, canola, and millet.

I’ll look forward to seeing how they grow on my next visit to the region.

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