Digging deeper into the arid terrain of the world’s largest landlocked country

How Uzbekistan’s farmers are overcoming soil salinity and water shortages

After years of soil degradation in western Uzbekistan, smallholder farmers like Adyl have turned to climate-smart techniques to tackle the impacts of drought. ©Temur Khujanazarov


“I’ve been farming this land all of my life and seen so many people from this area leave over the years because of the heat, dry weather and water shortages,” says Adyl Khujanov, who runs a farm in the village of Kyzylkesek, in western Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan region.

The Central Asian country is double land-locked – meaning it is surrounded by countries that are themselves landlocked – and more than half of Uzbekistan’s soils are salt-affected making it extra hard to farm productively.

Adyl took over the land from his father and his family have been living on this plot in Kyzylkesek – considered the hottest and driest place in Uzbekistan – for over 30 years. As temperatures mounted and the earth dried up, many farmers couldn’t make it through the lean periods and moved to cities, as well as to neighbouring Kazakhstan, in search of work.

In recent years, Uzbekistan’s policy reforms have placed a greater emphasis on the importance of the agricultural sector as a driver of an export-oriented economy. A focus on revitalizing rural areas by harnessing the potential of family farms is underway.

FAO’s Global Soil Partnership (GSP) collaborates with soil scientists in Uzbekistan to develop climate-smart soil management practices so that crops can continue to thrive even when grown in salt-affected terrains, all with the goal of stemming further salinization. Smallholders like Adyl are benefitting from such expertise, scaling-up sustainable agricultural techniques to restore natural habitats and tackle the impacts of drought.

“Thanks to new methods which we have learnt and adopted here to cope with climate change and severe water shortages, I can grow tomatoes, melons, pulses and forage crops to feed animals,” Adyl said.

The story of Adyl is not singular. Soil salinity is widespread, sometimes occurring naturally, sometimes an outcome of human activity. Seeing the impact that degraded soils have on food production and food security, FAO works with countries around the world to provide the data and best practices needed to make changes in the management of soil resources.

Farmers in Uzbekistan are cultivating climate-smart crops like alfalfa (left/top) or sorghum (right/bottom) that not only grow in less-fertile land but also help to replenish the soil’s nutrients. ©Temur Khujanazarov

Salty soils: stumbling blocks in achieving food security

An estimated one billion people live in areas that could be affected by salinization by the end of the twenty-first century. There are more than 1.4 billion hectares of salt-affected soil around the globe, mostly in the Near East and North Africa, central and southern Asia, as well as Latin America.

Soil salinity is a naturally occurring phenomenon in arid environments, such as deserts, where intense evaporation and a chronic lack of water often turn the earth overly saline. Soils like these are less fertile because salt hampers plants’ natural ability to take up water from the ground.

But unsustainable human activities are exacerbating soil salinity. Excessive tillage, the over-use of fertilizers, inappropriate irrigation methods and use of poor-quality water, deforestation or the overexploitation of groundwater are the main drivers of human-induced soil salinization.

Only specially adapted plants, known as halophytes, and salt tolerant crops can grow well in these soils.

“When managed appropriately, even salty soils may host rich and valuable ecosystems and produce nutritious, salinity-adapted crops such as quinoa, artichoke and different sorts of pulses,” said Natalia Rodriguez Eugenio, FAO land and water officer.

Global map instrumental in decision-making

The GSP has produced the Global Map of Salt-Affected Soils – a tool to help governments, policy makers, experts and food producers to make informed decisions based on soil data.

So far, the map contains contributions from over 118 countries including Uzbekistan. Its goal is to provide policy makers and land users with better information when dealing with climate change adaptation, land use planning and sustainable soil management practices.

Maria Konyushkova, a specialist in salt-affected soils with FAO’s GSP sums up the science: “Salt-affected soils occupy about 11 percent of the earth’s land and around ten percent of the irrigated and rainfed croplands, forcing people to adapt to this type of environment. The sustainable practices that help to manage these soils are those that decrease the evaporation from soil and increase the leaching of salts from the roots.” 

Organic carbon inputs, like manure, compost or crop residues, can also be added to soils to boost their health and nurture productivity.

Healthy soils support the entire food chain from the food we eat to the water we drink and even the air we breathe. Conserving and restoring their natural balance requires recognition and action.

FAO’s Global Map of Salt-Affected Soils is an important tool for identifying impacted areas and determining where sustainable soil management practices should be adopted. ©Sergey Khokhlov

Rooting for change

Change is in motion in the scorching plains of Karakalpakstan.

Thanks to efforts to make farming in Uzbekistan greener and more resilient to climate change, land is being developed despite chronic water scarcity and soil salinization. And this means that people who left are returning.

“Several families who moved out are back and have acquired a new sense of life and purpose. We can pass this on to our children and grandchildren,” concluded Adyl.

With crop diversification, livestock and sustainable soil management practices now all a feature of life for Uzbek farming communities, hope for the future is on the horizon – tinged with a mixture of knowledge passed on by previous generations and cutting-edge technologies.

FAO’s GSP is working to promote these responsible practices and the sustainable management of soils globally to guarantee healthy and productive soils, the foundation for improving food security and nutrition for people around the world.

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*This story is an update of one first published on 03/12/2021.

12. Responsible consumption and production, 13. Climate action, 15. Life on land