Preventing surface run-off and improving irrigation in Uzbekistan’s Zaamin region

On hillside properties like Hulkar Pistasi, in the Zaamin district of Djizakh region, two challenges include how to keep crops watered in the steep, dry environment, and how to keep nutrients in the soil while also making a decent profits.

The Zaamin district’s open rolling hills, located in the centre of Uzbekistan, provide great camera-fodder for tourists but are not so beneficial for farmers like Akhmatov. What he sees is land eroded and stripped of nutrients. This is part of the expensive cost of Uzbekistan’s 749,000 hectares of land impacted by deforestation and misuse.

‘Pistasi’ in the property name ‘Hulkar Pistasi’ means ‘pistachio’. Mr. Akhmatov can remember a time long ago when this was an apt name for the land populated with trees and shrubs that were good for the soil together, but agricultural and firewood needs have since led to mass clearance. The cleared land has lost its nutrients to run-off, allowing for neither crops to sell, nor firewood for energy.

UNDP’s ‘LAND’ project has collaborated with Mr. Akhmatov and other farm managers to improve how they manage resources, and balance differing agricultural and economic needs.

Water problems and solutions

Many of Uzbekistan’s agricultural problems are a testament to poor land use. The most catastrophic and thus memorable problem was the Aral Sea’s depletion, as a result of attempting to irrigate the water-hungry crop with water flowing to the inland sea, causing a multitude of negative effects.

Nationwide, low-tech solutions have been sought to address region-specific challenges in terms of improving irrigation for farming. Flat regions like Khorezm require laser-levelling – here the challenge is not run-off as much as evaporation. Provided there is some training, and suitable care for the equipment involved, laser-levelling is an effect, cost-efficient solution to irrigation difficulties. On hillside properties like Hulkar Pistasi, the two challenges include how to keep crops watered in the steep, dry environment, and secondly how to keep nutrients in the soil while also making decent profits.

Solving the first problem involves feeding a 6.7-kilometre length of rubber hose through the bases of 900 plum tree saplings (planted with UNDP’s assistance in 2015). The water drips out of small holes in the rubber tubing, directly onto the stems and roots of plum trees. The steady irrigation means plum trees can put down strong roots that keep weak soils in place.

The plum trees are not only good for maintaining soil structure, but their fruit makes the crop highly-profitable.

The good, the bad, and the amazing

All new solutions need a courageous individual to initially try them out. The idea of drip irrigation is not a new one – it has been around for centuries and used almost everywhere (especially in dry regions). It is a proven approach to agriculture on slopped, dry hillsides, like those in Zaamin.

Drip irrigation is low-tech and requires no technical equipment - in Mr. Akhmatov’s case, a regular piece of long tubing was used, punctured with staggered holes. The method is extremely efficient, with plants receiving just enough water, minimising the risk of washing out the land. The result is strong trees unthreatened by water displacement. 
Setting up drip irrigation does requires time and some degree of resources. For Mr. Akhmatov getting his hands on the tubing was simple, but for other farmers it could be a costly endeavour. Laying out the system, including planting the saplings in strategic locations, actually setting up the tubing, and testing the irrigation system, can all be difficult. The costs may be greater than some farm overheads.

The benefits, though, are significant in terms of better rates of production which can help pay back costs. “When I started implementing DIS, I had only a few hundred square metres of land, which was on irrigated land standing lower than the rainfed zone,” Mr. Akhmatov shared with UNDP Uzbekistan.

“Now with project support I am already operating over 2.1 hectares of rainfed lands. Neighbouring farmers, seeing my efforts and understanding the benefits of investments into innovations, have started thinking about changing their businesses from widespread grazing to the effective non-livestock use of rainfed lands.”

The changes made on Mr. Akhmatov’s farm will not only positively impact the farm itself, but will also encourage additional environmental sustainability. As an example, the Hulkar Pistasi farm is expected that the  farm’s productivity will make a 100% increase – there will be a period of loss after the equipment’s installation, but crop increases will balance this. In the coming decade, it is expected that the farm will absorb 230.02 tons of CO2.

Applying a new approach to farming

Mr. Akhmatov is one of 20 farmers in the Zaamin area, and thousands nationally, who have adopted drip irrigation as a way of maintaining soil quality – he is committed to sharing his knowledge of drip irrigation among neighboring farmers. Four other farmers in the district have similar success stories, and  evidently there is a collective benefit to establishing the use of drip irrigation systems within the community.

“Drip irrigation methods, being an innovative technology for Uzbekistan’s irrigated lands, will ensure the more effective use of rainfed lands with low productivity,” Mr. Akhmatov said. “They will enable the rational use of water – a key resource in agricultural production.”

“I am ready to offer my support and assistance to farmers and landowners, who are now standing on the threshold of making decisions about what to do with their land plots, how to live there, and how to support their families.” 
Through the course of the LAND project’s implementation, it is intended that up to 170 farms in the Zaamin area will adopt the better irrigation methods, and like Mr. Akhmatov has done, it is hoped that those farmers  will be able to share the approaches with many others.  

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