Climate change and land degradation are making already tough conditions worse for the 1.6 million people living around the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan. New thinking about how to use marginal lands and low-quality water could help strengthen their livelihoods and resilience.
- Land degradation means lack of forage and fodder for livestock
- Non-conventional crops can support fodder production, improve soil quality
- Local women established learning alliance to scale up successful results
Harsh landscapes push rural communities to the limit
Many people living at the edges of the Aral Sea depend on livestock, mostly sheep, for their food security and incomes. But now, climate change, land degradation and soil salinization is exacerbating living conditions, making it difficult for pastoralists to cope.
Land degradation is caused by intensive irrigated agriculture and overgrazed pastures, especially in the transition zone between irrigated agricultural lands and the very hot and almost completely dry Kyzylkum desert. Loss of biodiversity and of rangeland productivity means a lack of forage and fodder for sheep, making it difficult to support them throughout winter.
Remote and hard-to-access markets further constrain the communities living here, and many people are forced to migrate elsewhere in search of more sustainable livelihoods. This leads to loss of local, traditional knowledge on sustainable land and water management. However, growing non-conventional crops on desert pastures, hayfields and marginal land can help support livestock productivity and is emerging as one pathway toward a better future for these communities.
Participatory efforts find crops for multiple purposes
In 2015 and 2016, scientists launched a participatory research effort with local communities in the Karauzyak district in Karakalpakstan to study how marginal, low-quality land and water could best be managed and used. Thirty-five households participated in the work to test two best-bet practices, namely agro-forestry and a mixed farming–livestock system.
Men and women farmers worked with scientists to test several varieties of the most valuable salt-, drought- and heat-tolerant non-traditional crops fit for the area’s harsh conditions, including sorghum, pearl millet, mungbean, quinoa, sorghum, sweet clover, sesame, sunflower and many others. They also planted different kinds of berry shrubs as well as apple, apricot and mulberry trees. The main objective was for such plants to help provide fodder for livestock.
A new mungbean variety called Durdona, which was grown in the edges of rice fields in Karabuga village, showed particularly promising results: It nearly doubled yields and incomes of local farmers, while improving soil quality and health.
By cultivating this new mungbean variety along our rice fields, we were able to significantly increase our incomes, because we had higher yields,” said Mr. Yliyas Khodjabergenov, a farmer from Karabuga village. “In the future, we would like to plant more of these improved crop varieties.”
Triple-win for people, livestock and soils
Scientists found that even in extreme conditions of high soil salinity and high groundwater tables the tested non-conventional crops produced huge amounts of biomass rich in nutrients, which is very well suited for livestock feeding. They also produced grain that communities can use for consumption.
Further, such crops were found to help desalinize the soil by drawing salt up into their aboveground biomass, which allows less salt-tolerant crops to grow. And, because these dual-purpose crops can be planted on the margins of other fields, there is no need for additional irrigation: when traditional fields are drained the runoff water supports the non-conventional crops on the margins, which results in effective use of low-quality water.
To share these results and teach local women householders, pastoralists and farmers about the income-generating advantages and nutritional benefits of these new crops, scientists organized a number of seminars.
The seminars covered different aspects of using non-conventional crops for animal feeding in winter and included a cooking class on preparation of non-traditional crops such as quinoa, sesame, legumes and sorghum. Special emphasis was placed on crop characteristics; their nutritional value and different uses for forage, food and oil production; and on cultivation techniques, especially root zone salinity management, irrigation and pest control.
Women band together to scale up results
The farmers who participated in the trials experienced a 20 percent increase in crop yields and livestock performance as a result of growing new crops and managing land and water in more efficient ways.
Scientists also developed and shared recommendations on seed multiplication for the non-conventional crops tested, so that production can continue in the coming years, and seed-producing farmers experienced a 20 percent increase in incomes. Finally, a handbook on forage potential and nutritional characteristics of non-conventional forage crops for winter livestock feeding was developed.
Inspired by the research results presented during the seminars, about forty-five women farmers decided to create a Rural Women Learning Alliance in order to join forces and identify and promote strategies for diversifying household incomes through cultivation of non-conventional crops. The Rural Women Learning Alliance is the perfect example of the positive and sometimes unexpected outcomes that can result from research that is inclusive of local communities and considers their needs.
This activity was led by International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) under the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems and in partnership with the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA). This research was supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.
About the author
Marianne Gadeberg is a freelance writer, editor, and communications specialist.