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International forum gives renewed impetus to agricultural research cooperation in arid and semi-arid areas

Date: 12.09.2014.

Scientists believe that salt-tolerant crops like quinoa can contribute to resolving food security issues in arid and semi-arid areas. Photo by Kristina Toderich.

Climate change is widely believed to increase desertification globally. This process will have serious implications worldwide for social, economic stability, biodiversity and sustainable development. But drylands, in particular arid and semi-arid areas, home to some 2bn people, are considered to be most vulnerable. As they become degraded, the impact on people and environment can be devastating.

People living in arid and semi-arid areas are already struggling to make an adequate living. Poverty and malnutrition are endemic. And population growth is making things worse. The Central Asian region is facing similar challenges as large swathes of land are classified as arid and semi-arid. By some estimates, over 70 per cent of the lands in the region are arid and semi-arid. Salinity, waterlogging, decreasing productivity of rangelands and reduction of soil productivity are a major concern and primary causes of desertification in the region. And as water gets scarcer, risks are growing. Livelihoods of pastoral and other communities are at stake.

All this calls for prompt collaborative and integrated efforts by policymakers, scientists and international research and development organizations. New approaches and policies are urgently needed. Above all, there is an urgent need for an international platform for exchange of knowledge and experience. And this is what inspired the 2nd International Conference on Arid Land Studies1 (ICAL 2) on 'Innovations for sustainability and food security in arid and semi-arid areas' in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, in early September 2014. ICAL 2 builds on the outcomes of the International Forum on Desert Technology X and the 1st International Conference on Arid Land Studies (ICAL 1), organized in Japan in May 2011.

More than 220 experts, senior scientists from international research organizations, policymakers and other stakeholders from 24 countries convened on 10-12 September to share knowledge and experience in ensuring agricultural development and food security in arid and semi-arid areas; to discuss prevention of salinization and sustainable management of natural resources; and to present best practices and technologies on soil improvement and optimization of crop production systems. And over half of the participants were young specialists and researchers. As part of the conference agenda, the Eurasian Soil Partnership2 (EASP) held its first Plenary and Steering Committee meetings on 10-11 September at Samarkand State University.

During several separate technical sessions, participants addressed a variety of topics, including dryland systems, achieving sustainable dryland agriculture, managing land degradation, enhancing water and land productivity, evaluating and employing bio-resources, policy and economic considerations in degradation of pastures, biomass production for biofuel, developing adaptive measures to global warming, invasive and native trees, and propagation of economically important desert plants. In particular they agreed that increasing water and land productivity in arid and semi-arid areas should be high on the research and development agenda globally. As Dr Shoaib Ismail, of the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA), noted, productive and fertile soils are becoming scarce in arid and hyper-arid desert environments globally. And this calls for understanding better the ecosystem, looking at both mitigation and adaptation processes carefully both from environmental and economic perspectives. Dr Dilorom Fayzieva, a member of the Parliament of Uzbekistan, also pointed out that agricultural productivity in the drylands of Central Asia is low because of drought, floods, extreme temperatures, land degradation and other biophysical stress. In this light, participants noted, it is important to take integrated multi-disciplinary approaches to development and conservation of desert environments. However, continued capacity development should be an integral part of any approach or solution.

Improving regional and international collaboration was another important issue discussed at the conference. Participants said that it is important to create more dialogue and knowledge-sharing opportunities and establish collaborative projects and approaches. This is necessary, for example, to upscale and mainstream best practices and technologies in the region. Furthermore, participants also proposed collaboration on increasing quantity and quality of data on the severity, extent and trends of salinization of irrigated lands and supporting countries in adopting proactive drought risk management.

The conference gave renewed impetus to efforts aimed at reclaiming and utilizing salinity-affected areas. Moreover, it served as a platform for bringing together donors like the Islamic Development Bank (IDB), the Asian Development Bank, USAID and international agricultural research organizations like ICBA, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and others to discuss joint collaboration opportunities. In particular it paved the way for the launch of multi-country collaborative projects on salinity management with FAO and rural development with IDB. It is hoped that all this will help to improve, among other things, cooperation among researchers and between them and policymakers on ways to increase use of biological approaches to soil and water reclamation and sustainable use for improving livelihoods of people in the less favourable arid and semi-arid areas.

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1 For more information on ICAL 2, please visit: http://cac-program.org/events/ical

2 For more information on the Eurasian Soil Partnership, please visit:
http://www.fao.org/globalsoilpartnership/regionalpartnerships/europe/en/

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