Water scarcity, high temperatures and sandy soils have been a problem for farmers, especially women farmers, in Mauritania trying to grow vegetables under harsh conditions to feed their families and sell at local markets. Thanks to the use of nuclear and related techniques to determine the most effective use of water and fertilizer, they have increased yields, can plant new types of vegetables and are able to grow food even in arid areas, at the edge of the desert.
“There is more crop diversification and food can grow all year long, instead of only during the rainy season, like before,” said Baba Ahmed Ould Naghra, Director of the National Centre for Agricultural Research and Agricultural Development. “Now, more than 400 women and their families in two villages have food available for their own consumption and for selling to other areas, providing income for education and health.” The surplus of vegetables has also helped decrease malnutrition in children and pregnant women, he added.
Mauritania gets very little rainfall, and its only source of fresh water, the Senegal River, is at the southern edge of the country. As a result, small scale farmers face water scarcity, and losing water through evaporation or absorption by surrounding soil and sand is a waste they can ill afford.
The IAEA, in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), trained local experts on the use of nuclear and related techniques to determine the most effective use of water and fertilizer in agriculture since 2016 as part of an IAEA technical cooperation project. Local experts, together with an IAEA scientist, installed small-scale family drip irrigation systems suited to local needs and trained farmers in the use of this technology in early 2017.
“Frequent irrigation using small amounts of water each time and targeted application to the root of the crops are the most effective and least resource intensive techniques,” said Mohammad Zaman, a soil scientist at the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture. “But you need to know how much water and fertilizer to use. This is where we help.”
Using their newly acquired skills in isotopic techniques, local scientists were able to determine water and fertilizer requirements for maximizing productivity while saving resources. Stable isotope tracers were used to determine the amount of water and nitrogen fertilizer different crops required by measuring how much of each the plants absorb (see Tracking nitrogen intake and soil moisture).
The drip systems are used to irrigate small and medium-sized plots. Each system has a water tank with an on-off valve, with which farmers control the amount of irrigation water of their crops based on guidelines established by the scientists. Pipes are dug underground, with tiny holes near the roots of the plants. When necessary, fertilizer is added to the water in a process known as fertigation. “It is a system which has been adopted very quickly by farmers because it is very simple to use,” said Ould Naghra.
“There were a lot of positive changes in our lives thanks to this project, including higher income, more food on our table and an increase in our productivity,” said Haby Ali Niane, President of the Women’s Cooperative in the southern village of Bagodine and a participant in the project. “Farmers also don’t have to travel as often to collect water from faraway wells, which saves them a lot of time and physical labour.”
Farmers in nearby villages are increasingly showing interest in drip irrigation systems and young people are now more likely to stay in their villages to work, instead of migrating to cities, Ali Niane said. “We have become models for others.”
Local authorities are planning to set up drip irrigation systems at three sites in the neighbouring region of Kaedi in 2019. The IAEA and FAO, through the IAEA’s technical cooperation programme, are helping 40 countries to introduce this technique, including 21 in Africa.