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Irrigation and drainage
Evolution of irrigation development
In 2000, 1 730 767 ha were equipped for irrigation, meaning an average increase of 0.9 percent per year since 1992. Only around 70 percent were actually irrigated (Table 4 and Table 5). The source of water is almost exclusively fossil groundwater (more than 95 percent) (Figure 3).
Localized and sprinkler irrigation, called modern irrigation, covers about 66 percent, while the remaining 34 percent is under surface irrigation, called traditional irrigation (Figure 4). The largest irrigated areas are located in the regions of Riyadh, Quassim, Jazan, Hail, Eastern, and Al Jouf.
There are three types of schemes that differ in terms of size, level of modernization and ownership (Figure 5):
- Very large private societies, such as National Agricultural Development Societies and Companies, are owned by private firms belonging to one or several owners. Some of these farms have an area of tens of square kilometers.
- Large to medium size farms of a few hundred hectares owned by private individuals.
- Medium to small farms, most of which existed prior to the agricultural development boom that started in the mid-1970s.
The first two categories of farms are located in regions with important and good quality groundwater aquifers and are specialized in terms of production, depending on the region and its vocational production potential. The most important crops are fodder for dairy production, date palms, vegetables, cereals, citrus fruits, olives and tropical fruits. They originate from the land distribution by the government in the late 1970s and early 1980s as part of the policy to develop agriculture.
Both categories are equipped with pressurized or modern irrigation technologies and are run as ‘capitalist’ enterprises by foreign managers and technicians, with the exception of a few cases where surface irrigation methods still prevail. The existence of modern irrigation techniques is not however necessarily an indication of high water use efficiency. No data are available on the amounts of water used by these farms, but as a general rule there is overuse in most, if not all, farms.
The existence of such large estates may not be compatible with the available water resources. Non-sustainability of the water resources used jeopardizes the sustainability of the farms themselves and puts at stake the profitability of the investments made. In many regions of the country several of these farms have already abandoned business as a result of groundwater depletion or non-profitability of the investments made. Based on the information and data available, all farms have been installed with no prior sound assessment of water resources to determine the extent of safe use or even the rate and duration of use in the case of limited fossil water.
As far as the third category is concerned, some of these farms went out of business either because of their non-viable sizes or the incapacity of their owners to drill wells or both. They are less specialized in production compared with the first two and less modernized. Their irrigation systems and practices are essentially traditional, with low efficiency surface irrigation methods (FAO, 2007).
Role of irrigation in agricultural production, the economy and society
Of the area equipped for irrigation, estimated at 1 730 767 ha in 2000, on average 1 213 586 ha were actually irrigated during the period 2001-2005. In 2006 the harvested irrigated crop area covered around 1 214 000 ha, of which 56 percent consisted of cereals (mainly wheat, following sorghum and barley), 17 percent of fodder, 17 percent of permanent crops (mainly date palms) and 9 percent of vegetables (Table 4 and Figure 6). In 1999 permanent crops were predominantly irrigated by surface irrigation, while annual crops were mainly benefiting from pressurized irrigation methods (Table 6).
Irrigation development in Saudi Arabia was the result of government policies to boost agricultural production in the 1970s. Well digging permits were granted to farmers and private companies in the regions where explorations by the public sector had revealed the existence of groundwater. The permits allowed farmers to drill wells with interest-free loans and with a subsidy of 50 percent of the cost of pumping stations. In addition, farmers could get interest free-loans for equipping their farms with modern irrigation systems, such as centre pivots, as well as for other purposes. At present about two thirds of the irrigated area is equipped with modern irrigation systems.
To promote the generalization of modern irrigation techniques, the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) is currently providing subsidized tree seedlings, but only to those farms already equipped with these systems. In fact, subsidized seedlings have been provided for around twenty years in order to promote the production of fruit crops, such as citrus trees in Najran, tropical species in Jizan, palm trees in several regions and other types elsewhere (olive trees, etc.) This is actually encouraging farmers to switch from wheat to fruit trees as a result of the government policy to reduce the area cropped by wheat by reducing the quantity of wheat purchased from farmers. However, depending on the area involved in the shift from wheat to fruit trees, it may well be that reducing the wheat area will actually result in putting more pressure on water resources once the trees become adult. Being perennial crops, fruit trees require more water than the annual cereals on an equal area basis.
Reducing the quantity of wheat purchased by the government from farmers has resulted in a gradual decrease in annual production over more than five years from over 4 million tonnes at the beginning of the 1990s to about 2 million tonnes. Other measures taken by the government with the objective of ‘reducing pressure on water’ include: banning wheat and forage exports and not purchasing barley from farmers (FAO, 2007). In general, the production of cereals is about 60 percent of what it was at the beginning of the 1990s.
Status and evolution of drainage systems
Drainage problems occur in several parts of the country because of the existence of shallow, impermeable layers. About 10 850 ha, equivalent to 0.6 percent of the equipped area for irrigation, have drainage facilities under governmental management (Table 4). The drainage systems mainly consist of open drainage canals. In several projects, such as the Al-Hassa irrigation project in the east, agricultural drainage water is reused for irrigation after being mixed with fresh groundwater.
Soil salinity is being noticed in parts of the newly developed areas because of poor irrigation water quality and the poor drainage conditions of some soils.