Soil, Water & Agronomy in Detail

Climate change, soil degradation, and limited resources—particularly water—are jeopardizing the agricultural future of the world’s dry areas. In response, ICARDA conducts sustainable soil, water and agronomy management research to develop diversified and sustainable techniques for small and large-scale farming to strengthen livelihoods resilience and diversify cereal-based irrigated, rain-fed and conservation agricultural food systems. We also promote the safe use of treated wastewater to generate feed, fodder, and trees, and develop sustainable desert agriculture.

Under the One CGIAR reformulation, ICARDA’s Soil, Water, and Agronomy (SWA) team cooperated with sister CGIAR centers in 2021 to develop new frameworks that would govern CGIAR’s future agronomy, water management, and soil health initiatives throughout the world. ICARDA’s SWA team supported the development of the One CGIAR Excellence in Agronomy (EiA) and Nexus Gains initiatives. EiA aims to deliver agronomic gains for smallholder farming households in prioritized farming systems, emphasizing the measurable impact of women and young farmers on food and nutrition security, income, water use, soil health, and climate resilience. SWA is leading its Central and West Asia and North Africa (CWANA) regional team, focusing on Egypt and Morocco. Meanwhile, the Nexus Gains initiative focuses on Sudan and Uzbekistan by generating outputs via four work packages and a cross-cutting capacity development program across the water, energy, food, forests, and biodiversity systems.

In 2021, the Moroccan Government included a plan to have 1.5 million hectares under ICARDA’s conservation agriculture (CA) by 2030 in its Green Generation Strategy (2020–2030). The World Bank has engaged the SWA team, in partnership with the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA-Morocco), to develop a roadmap and investment plan for achieving this target. CA is a sustainable agricultural production system that enhances soil health and, in turn, improves crop productivity and household resilience. Three core principles guide CA: no (or minimal) tillage to the soil after harvest, permanent soil cover to lock in moisture and reduce evaporation, and crop diversification replacing the traditional monocropping system. Adopting CA will half rates of soil erosion. In addition, each hectare cultivated using CA will capture around 0.5 tons of carbon dioxide, in line with the Net-Zero Carbon Emission Pledge launched at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26).

ICARDA’s SWA team’s Agronomist Dr. Rachid Moussadek, coauthored a white paper on carbon sequestration for better soil and food security with the African Plant Nutrition Institute and INRA-Morocco for the United Nations Food System Summit. The paper outlines challenges, such as the growing global competition for biomass, and identifies best management practices and soil fertility management for soil carbon sequestration in individual settings. It demonstrates how site-specific nutrient management using a combination of mineral and organic fertilizers, combined with other techniques, can deliver optimal results for farmers and food security.

ICARDA’s Social, Economic, and Policy Research (SEPR) Senior Economist Dr. Boubaker Dhehibi, team coauthored a research paper on water, policy, and productivity in Egyptian Agriculture. Findings from this paper reveal that expanding water resources is just one way to increase or maintain agricultural output when water scarcity restricts production, and that investments in research to raise productivity can also release constraints on growth. The paper underlines the fact that technological innovations and efficiency gains have contributed significantly more to agricultural growth in Egypt than the expansion of irrigated area or water use.

Following ICID and ICARDA’s memorandum of understanding, ICARDA’s SWA team actively participated in the 5th African Regional Conference, organized by ICID. During the event, ICARDA hosted the first African Young Professional Workshop. ICARDA and partners from INRA-Morocco and MIT presented the challenges of drylands water scarcity and how to address them. Around 70 young professionals from 30 countries participated in a field visit to the joint ICARDA-MIT-INRA Ultra-low Energy Drip Irrigation for MENA Countries research project site on the outskirts of Marrakech, Morocco. The workshop showcased the multi-season field tests of low-energy drip irrigation emitters.


ICARDA, together with the Food and Agriculture Organization of The United Nations (FAO), participated in the Arab Water Forum 2021. ICARDA Director-General and CGIAR CWANA Regional Director, Mr. Aly Abousabaa, and ICARDA scientists Dr. Vinay Nangia, Dr. Chandrashekhar Biradar, and Dr. Ajit Govind discussed multiple topics including the climate and water security nexus, advanced technologies, and early warning systems to improve agricultural water productivity in transboundary water basins. Leveraging the untapped potential of food production under water scarcity and climate change in the Arab Region, and water for sustainable development, were also discussed.


The SWA team organized a joint bi-weekly webinar series with FAO between September and November 2021 on state-of-the-art evapotranspiration (ET) measurement methods, which can help countries adapt to climate change and the increasing freshwater scarcity for sustainable agriculture. The webinar was led by global experts and attracted over 1,700 international and regional participants. Leading up to the series, ICARDA, in collaboration with FAO’s Regional Office for Near East and North Africa, established the first regional network for field measurement of ET in five countries: Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, where National Agricultural Research Systems use different ET measurement options. The SWA team also reviewed the FAO flagship publication, The State of the World’s Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture (SOLAW21).


The SWA team’s innovative introduction of quinoa into Morocco’s standard lentil production system as a diversified cropping system caught the attention of the World Overview of Conservation Approaches and Technologies, which included it in their compendium of good land practices. Through diversified cropping systems such as this, ICARDA’s Dr. Mina Devkota and Dr. Rajni Sinha are aiming to rehabilitate the dry regions’ soils across Morocco, India, Nepal, and Uzbekistan, where soils have been broken down by decades of intensive tillage, overgrazing, overuse, and damaging industrial farming practices.

Funded by the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ), the iNASHR project focuses on out-scaling proven agricultural technologies and agronomic practices for sustainable intensification of wheat production systems. ICARDA, together with the Egyptian Agricultural Research Center (ARC) and Access Agriculture (AA), promoted integrated technology packages on 600 on-farm demonstration sites (20 percent owned by women) across six governorates located in the Nile Delta and Upper Egypt. These packages include seeds of improved wheat and faba bean varieties, a mechanized raised-bed machine, farmer-led seed multiplication, as well as agronomic practices including crop rotation and integrated pest management. During the year, the project transferred knowledge to 22,691 individuals (44 percent women) through farmer-field-schools, training of trainers, technical training, field demonstrations and farmer-to-farmer video screenings. In total, the project reached 23,291 direct and 129,335 indirect beneficiaries in 2021. Preliminary data from selected demonstration sites indicates that use of the raised-bed machine resulted in an average increase in grain yield of 23 percent in faba bean and 13 percent in wheat. Increases in water productivity were also achieved due to yield increases and a 22 percent reduction in water use.

Precision farming leverages advanced digital tools and breakthroughs in big data analytics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence to fast-track value creation for farmers by saving on input costs. This approach, which observes and responds to yield, moisture levels, and soil quality variations across a field, relies on analyzing data collected by sensors, drones, satellite imagery, GPS, IoT devices, and other geospatial tools that scrutinize land plots for anomalies and inefficiencies. Water scientists, agronomists, entomologists, GIS analysts, breeders, and economists pooled this precious knowledge to establish ICARDA’’s first precision farming one-stop shop in Amlaha, at the ICARDA research station located in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Following an official agreement with the Indian state government, ICARDA is launching a three-year pilot project funded by the State Government of Madhya Pradesh, India on irrigated and rainfed agro-ecologies focusing on the most economically important crops in Madhya Pradesh; namely cotton, wheat, and soybean, to increase farmers’ income across Madhya Pradesh, known for having the highest agricultural growth rate in India. Embracing digital technologies can help local farmers achieve ambitious targets set by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to double farmers’ incomes by the end of 2022.


dryland window