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March 31, 2010

Nuclear technology for irrigation in Libya, Algeria

Only a few years ago, the world was fearing the development of nuclear weapons in Libya. Now, nuclear technology is used to improve irrigation, water management and growing potatoes in Libya and neighbouring Algeria. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) - which was key in dismantling Libya's atomic bomb programmes - now is involved in developing a more peaceful use of nuclear technology in North Africa.

In Libya, a project by IAEA and the government is using isotopic and nuclear techniques to improve agricultural water management. Constraints to water use efficiency are identified with these techniques, and appropriate land and irrigation management practices are put in place to enhance more crops per drop of water and improve soil water storage.

The project is already giving results, IAEA reports from Libya. With proper fertigation management identified through nuclear techniques "resulted in tremendous savings of water and fertilizer and reduced the environmental impact of irrigation and fertilizer application," the atomic agency says.

Fertigation - which is the application of fertilizer through drip irrigation system - was said to be "an efficient way of controlling water and nutrients in the root-zone helped to increase yield of the potato tuber by more than 150 percent, and reduced the water and nitrogen fertilizer use by more than 50 percent." Additional benefits had included savings on chemical and labour with increased income for farmers.

With support from IAEA, drip irrigation and fertigation is now becoming a well adapted water management practice on light-textured soils of coastal belt in Libya. The Biotechnology Research Centre in Tripoli carried out a series of drip fertigation for potato production. "Drip fertigation is a potential irrigation and nitrogen management tool for potato production in Libya that can improve field water-use efficiency," says Abdulhafied Ellafi of Libya's Tajoura Nuclear Research Centre.

In neighbouring Algeria, nuclear techniques are now being used to stop desertification, soil salinisation and the recent drastic reduction of arable land. In the western part of the country, where major irrigation schemes are located, some 30 percent of arable lands are risking to be lost to desertification and salinisation.

Algerian authorities, together with IAEA, have started a project in western Algeria using nuclear techniques "to reduce salinity induced land degradation through developing appropriate irrigation, drainage, soil and crop management practices so that preventive and corrective measures of salt-affected agricultural lands can be established."

The use of nuclear technology in Algeria's agricultures is mostly defined to the mapping of problem areas, such as monitoring salinity levels, measuring nutrition levels and identifying water quality. This again can be used to control irrigation scheduling according to crop needs, thus assuring healthy crops and avoiding further salinisation of soils.

This peaceful use of nuclear technology in North Africa indeed is a welcome contribution to agricultural science, according to IAEA. Studies of the application of these techniques in Algeria and Libya are already being assessed, with the aim of using this technology on other locations.

And sub-Saharan Africa is among the regions that could benefit most from this research. 18 African countries are now participating in a new regional irrigation project to introduce and pilot-test appropriate small scale irrigation technologies, with the aim of developing irrigation systems for small-scale farmers for increasing yield and quality of high value crops, and to improve their income and livelihood, according to IAEA.


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