Irrigation Expertise Needed in Central Asia
by Kevin Robinson-Avila
When Craig Runyan toured small farms in eastern Uzbekistan last year, he said the landscape and climate were so similar to New Mexico that he felt like he’d never left home.
“Most Uzbek farmers grow crops in arid valleys that are irrigated with river water, like in New Mexico,” said Runyan, a water quality specialist with New Mexico State University. “The valleys are surrounded by desert plateaus similar to the mesas we have here. At one point, I walked onto a mesa and looked away from the valley into the desert and it felt just like standing in central New Mexico.”
Those similarities are one of the central reasons why Runyan and other NMSU experts are assisting in a five-year project to improve irrigation and growing techniques in Uzbekistan and two of its Central Asian neighbors, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
NMSU is partnering with Arkansas-based Winrock International to provide technical assistance and education to local farmers, said Runyan, who coordinates NMSU’s Water Task Force and is supervising NMSU involvement in the project.
“Climatically, geographically and environmentally, the Central Asian countries are very similar to the U.S. Southwest, so our specialists can relate to the conditions and problems growers in that region face,” Runyan said. “When faculty go over there, they quickly determine what’s good and bad and what needs improvement based on their experience in New Mexico. It’s so similar it’s almost a no-brainer.”
The project, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, is part of a broad U.S. effort to help the former Soviet republics in Central Asia rebuild their economies and establish democratic institutions, Runyan said. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, those countries have struggled to transition from centralized, top-down production to economies based on private enterprise.
That struggle is particularly evident in agriculture, where small-scale farmers are working to diversify crops and adopt efficient growing techniques, Runyan said.
“Under the Soviets, most agricultural workers were farmhands who took orders from agronomists on collective, government-run farms,” Runyan said. “As independent growers emerge, there’s a tremendous need to educate them about sustainable, irrigated agriculture.”
Through the project, Winrock International encourages growers to participate in newly formed Water User Associations that help farmers develop decision-making skills independent of the government, Runyan said.
“The Water User Associations allow them to elect leaders, express opinions and make decisions,” Runyan said. “It’s grassroots democracy building.”
As in New Mexico, Central Asian growers farm in a semiarid environment with highly alkaline soils, and they depend on canals to divert water from rivers. But aging Soviet canals are poorly designed and in disrepair.
To improve water flows, NMSU sent a team of agricultural engineers to assess irrigation systems, recommend repairs and teach the Water User Associations to efficiently allocate water.
“The canal system the Soviets left behind was badly designed to begin with and now it’s near collapse,” said Zohrab Samani, an NMSU agricultural engineer who visited Tajikistan for a month in May under the project. “The system has no floodgates to hold water back and raise water levels, so when the growers open turnouts to divert water to fields, it just trickles through because there’s not enough pressure built up. Some farmers spend up to five days just to irrigate a few acres.”
In some cases, fields aren’t leveled so growers are irrigating uphill, Samani said. Ditch-cleaning equipment is virtually nonexistent, and drainage is extremely poor, causing salts to build up in soil.
While in Tajikistan, Samani taught water users to construct rustic water flow measuring devices to help monitor and plan water use based on crop needs. He taught them makeshift methods to decrease sediment buildup in canals.
Curtis Smith, a horticulture specialist with NMSU’s Cooperative Extension Service, visited Uzbekistan for a month to teach growers alternative irrigation and growing techniques. He taught farmers to use clay pots to water plants – an ancient, but highly efficient way to irrigate in arid climates. Under the system, which Spanish colonists introduced in New Mexico in the 17th century, growers bury water- filled pots called ollas (pronounced OH-yas) next to plants. As water seeps through the porous clay, plant roots hug the urns to absorb moisture.
“Given conditions in Uzbekistan, this is appropriate technology,” Smith said.
To help growers diversify crops, Smith handed out seeds for a variety of fruits and vegetables such as watermelons, cantaloupes, carrots, onions, squash and pumpkins. The seeds are open-pollinated varieties, which improve crop quality and produce more seed for future plantings.
Winrock International has earmarked $250,000 annually for NMSU to continue sending experts to Central Asia for the next four years, Runyan said. On future trips, experts will help rehabilitate irrigation systems and train Uzbeks to assist their fellow growers in improving production techniques.
“NMSU has a lot to offer these countries,” Runyan said. “It’s also a great opportunity for our faculty to learn about problems in other parts of the world and contribute to creative solutions to those problems.”