Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering

Illinois research team works to enhance agricultural production in dry areas

Published Oct 30, 2011

Drip irrigation system at farm near El QaaA research team from the University of Illinois is working with scientists in Lebanon to develop a water allocation model that will enable Lebanese communities to enhance their agricultural production, using less water, with a system that is environmentally sustainable.

Prasanta Kalita, a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering (ABE), and Joseph Monical, a Ph.D. student in ABE, traveled to Lebanon in August to work with the Middle East Water and Livelihoods Initiative (WLI), an initiative sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). Illinois is one of six universities (including University of Florida, Texas A&M, University of California at Davis and at Riverside, and Utah State) working with ICARDA on this project. The WLI encourages each university to partner with research teams in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, or Yemen on research that will contribute to the improvement of livelihoods of the resource poor in dry areas.

"Project management teams have already identified areas in those countries where these research projects are necessary," said Kalita. "The objective for our trip to Lebanon was to meet the project partners we would be working with, visit the research site they had established and see what data collection they were currently performing, what they had collected previously and what had been available historically."

The research site is located in El Qaa, in the upper Orontes basin in northeastern Lebanon. "The site is very different from anything that I had seen before," said Monical. "They get less than 300 millimeters of rain a year [not quite 12 inches], so it's very dry. The surface has a lot of calcium carbonate rock. If you saw that land here, you'd probably just say build something on it. Don't try to grow anything. But that's what they have to work with."

To provide irrigation for agricultural production, Monical said they have pumped groundwater, which has created extensive depletion of groundwater levels over the past 30 years. "Because of that," Monical said, "they are interested in evaluating alternative cropping and irrigation strategies that will enhance their production and also minimize losses to and possibly recharge their groundwater levels."

During their week in Lebanon, Kalita and Monical visited the ICARDA office and research facility in Terbol and met with Hassan Machlab, ICARDA—Lebanon Country Manager. They also met with representatives from the Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute (LARI), another organization involved in the WLI, and visited the LARI research station in Tel Amara. Kalita and Monical were housed at the Agricultural Research Education Center of the American University of Beirut (AUB), and Kalita gave a presentation on ongoing research activities at Illinois (particularly those of the Department of ABE) to students at AUB.

Monical spent an extra week in Lebanon and was able to return to the LARI laboratories where soil and water samples from the site were being analyzed. He also made additional visits to the site to help collect soil and water samples. He documented the collection process as well as pumping and irrigation layouts for the areas that were visited.

"One of the challenges is the limited data availability," said Monical. "The project partners we talked with are hesitant to rely too heavily on historical data because of their concerns for accuracy so they're interested in taking new measurements that are more viable. As the project continues, we'll be helping out with that as well."

Monical said the team's visit was very successful. "It allowed us to develop an understanding of the problems of the region, the needs for water management and irrigation, the available resources, and we had opportunities to develop research questions that will address some of these problems."

Based on the information they acquired, the team was able to outline a preliminary scope of research work in Lebanon through the WLI, and they have plans to return to the area for more field work during December 2011 through January 2012, and May through August of 2012.

Initial funding for the project (including payment for the team's first trip) came from USAID and is administered through ICARDA, kept in account with the ACES Office of International Programs. The team has received additional matching funds from the ACES Office of Research to continue work on the project.

Collecting soil samples near El Qaa.

Dr. Kalita giving presentation on UIUC research at LARI station in Tel Amara.

El Qaa and surrounding area.

Orontes river near El Qaa.

Surface canal outside El Qaa.

News writer: Leanne Lucas

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