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Brighter future for farmers in Uzbekistan

Decades of ambitious irrigation projects have taken their toll on the Aral Sea Basin (World Bank)
Decades of ambitious irrigation projects have taken their toll on the Aral Sea Basin
World Bank

Scattered across Uzbekistan are the haunting remains of numerous abandoned farms. This year, in the country's Aral Sea Basin alone, up to 50,000 ha of agricultural land will go out of production as farmers, unable to earn a living from the saline soil, vacate their unprofitable plots.

But some Uzbek farmers are fighting back, with liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra). In the country's Syr Darya province, the herbaceous legume has been used to successfully regenerate sodic soils and prepare land for re-establishing cotton and wheat production, the main crops of the Soviet era. Liquorice production has been identified by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) as a low-cost reclamation crop, a "bright spot", and a cause for celebration.

An antidote to salt

Bright Spots
There are many examples from around the world of small scale interventions that have been effective in reversing environmental degradation and increasing food production. IWMI calls these pockets of success 'bright spots'. IWMI and its partners have been identifying and assessing 'bright spots' locally and globally, promoting the adoption of these new, low-cost techniques to rehabilitate land and improve food security.

Decades of over-ambitious irrigation projects, poor management of drainage systems, and the withdrawal of many state-provided extension services after the collapse of communism, have taken their toll on Uzbekistan's soil. Mobilised profile salt, gradually drawn to the soil-surface through capillary action and accumulated due to evaporation has resulted in saline soils unable to support cotton and wheat. And every year strong winds transport thousands of tonnes of surface salt to adjacent land, contaminating an even greater area.

But, despite widespread soil degradation, liquorice has flourished. Endemic to the region, wild liquorice fields are a frequent sight in Uzbekistan but until recently the perennial shrub had never been deliberately cultivated. Now it has been shown that its extensive, prolific root system lowers the water table, reducing the risk of salt rising to the surface. It also increases 'hydraulic conductivity' - the rate at which water moves through the soil profile - resulting in the leeching of surface salts into the groundwater where they are no longer a hazard.

Darkness to light

Wheat production has a long history in Uzbekistan (World Bank)
Wheat production has a long history in Uzbekistan
World Bank

Technological fixes for sodic soils - for example, improving drainage infrastructure - can cost up to US$2500 per ha/year, putting them beyond the means of farmers and the government. But liquorice production, at a comparatively modest US$50 per hectare, could be the long sought solution.

Studies by IWMI and Gulistan University in Uzbekistan have found that after four years of continuous liquorice cultivation, the water table in test plots had dropped below the critical level of 2.5m. When cotton and wheat were replanted, respective yields roughly doubled and tripled compared to pre-liquorice levels. About 100 hectares are now being sown to liquorice in Syr Darya province as farmers pass on the good news to their neighbours.

Liquorice also provides forage for livestock and its root is a popular ingredient in cooking, soft drinks, confectioneries and medicine, offering farmers income while they prepare to replant and harvest cotton and wheat. "We have clearly shown that liquorice works," says Andrew Noble of IWMI. "Farmers are keen to adopt it and are doing so where they can - with their own resources."

Cautious approach

Studies have shown liquorice to be a valuable reclamation plant, helping to restore soil fertility (Andrew Noble/IWMI)
Studies have shown liquorice to be a valuable reclamation plant, helping to restore soil fertility
Andrew Noble/IWMI

However, growing liquorice is not without potential pitfalls: liquorice has all the traits of an invasive weed and needs to be carefully managed. The Uzbek government is also reluctant to approve schemes that take land out of cotton and wheat production, particularly as liquorice - with ready markets at home and abroad - could become more lucrative than staple grains.

"The government is cautious - and it probably needs to be," admits Noble. "But this is abandoned land and liquorice is a very cheap option for rehabilitating these soils. Then, once the land has been restored, farmers should be able to grow cotton and wheat if water resources and drainage are managed appropriately"

Date published: March 2008

 

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