Opportunities and Challenges of Agriculture


This pages provides resources and lesson ideas on opportunities and challenges of agriculture, in extreme environments, predominantly hot arid environments. It develops a broad range of place examples, skill-based activities and multi-media resources to cover the challenges of irrigation and environmental problems such as salinization and irrigation. Students are introduced to a number of ways of mangaging arid environments, not all of which are pro-poor. Resources include graphs and photographs,unequal  access to resources are looked at through gender differences. Video resources on benefits of permaculture are included in this lesson.

Enquiry Question

What are the opportunities and challenges for management of agriculture in arid environments?

Lesson Time: 2-3 Hours

Lesson Objectives:

  • To examine the opportunities and challenges of agriculture in arid environments
  • To explain the causes of desertification and salinization
  • To describe more effective and sustainable solutions to irrigation

Teacher Notes:

Lesson 1 - The Challenge of Agriculture - desertification.

There are many different activities here to choose from. There isn't sufficient time to them all but I am sure there is an activity that suits your class needs

1. Mind map_Places, Processes and Possibilities_ Begin the lesson by asking the students to work in pairs to create a mind map on the challenges of agriculture that they have identified so far in the course.

They should first think about the key headings and then identify specific examples for each heading.

2. Summarizing a text as a tweet_Processes_The get the students to read the text on agriculture. They can do this either in the site or on the printable worksheet. Students should then summarize the main challenges of agriculture in arid environments in a 140 word tweet. 

They can then write a sentence that distinguishes aridity from infertility

3. Photograph analysis_ Place and Processes_irrigated fields - Start by getting the students to look at the photo of circular green fields in Saudi Arabia. What issues or concerns can they identify?.

4. Graph Analysis_Place and Possibilities _Wheat Production - Student can then study the graph of wheat production in Saudi Arabia.

Note: There are detailed notes for student extension reading here

5. Video resource_ Place and ProcessesThen you can show the animation on center pivot irrigation systems. Student should consider as they watch how center pivot systems can help increase food production and use less water? Is this an opportunity for all people and places? What factors hinder its broader use.

6. Human Processes - Unequal Access to Irrigation_ Power_ Give students the handout bases on the Al Jazeera article and students should write a summary on the gender divide that exists with access to irrigation.

7. Video Comprehension_Place and Possibilities_ Show students an alternative approach through permaculture in Jordon

8. Video Comprehension and worksheet on Zia Pits in Burkino Faso_Place and Possibilities_Then show students the video Zia pits in Burkinoi faso and students can complete the visual worksheet as they watch

Lesson 2 - Unequal Access to Land

Starter Activity _Place and Power_ Press release on Dafur Genocide - Students should watch the short clip on the Dafur genocide and discuss its links to the course

1. Human Processes_ Place, Power and Possibilities_Land Tenureship - Discuss the process land tenureship and how important student consider this as an opportunity in arid environments

2. Video Comprehension and worksheet_ Place, Power and Possibilities_Land conflict in Dafur - You can then show the video based on the complex land stresses and conflicts in Darfur. Students can annotte the flow diagram in their worksheet

Note: There is extension reading with the link.

3. Video Comprehension - Gender conflicts for land access in Niger_ Place, Power and Possibilities_ Then show the NIger video of tassa use in Niger and how male dominance threatens the long term success of the women's cooperative. Students should answer the questions

4. Causes of Salinity and Sodic Soils in Australia_ Place and Processes_Then introduce salinity in soils and students can make notes on the causes of salinity and sodic soils as they watch the video clip.

5. Salinisation_Processes_Then using the student worksheet on salinisation students can answer the questions. The first question requires them to describe the pattern of increased salinisation in Western Australia and then suggest reasons.

The second activity asks them use the diagram and explain how agriculture can cause salinisation.

There are also good resources in the Freshwater Environments section on the impact of irrigation

The final question requires the students to explain capillary rise of salt waters with the help of the diagram.

6. Student Assessment -Mind Map - Opportunities and Challenges - Students should create a one page mind map of the agricultural opportunities and challenges, to include place examples covered in class. This can be a full extension of the opening starter activity or they can begin again.

Starter Activity_Processes and Possibilities_ Mind Map

Working in pairs mind map the challenges of agriculture in extreme environments that you have seen in the course so far. Think about your key headings and then identify specific examples for each heading.

Student Notes on Agriculture


Arid regions are complex environments that pose many challenges for the management of agriculture. With rapidly growing population, climate change and uncertain rain patterns many arid environments are at risk of desertification and other regions are witnessing the migration of desert dunes. However, there are many successful examples of countries greening the desert for agriculture. These include intensive rain fed schemes like those found in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to small scale permaculture projects such as those found in the arid and savannah regions of Kenya. Soil management and ecology are increasingly becoming more sophisticated and through shared knowledge, cooperatives and the work of NGO networks to share good practice, the knowledge of simple and appropriate solutions such as stone lines, fencing, reforestation programs is spreading. Excellent examples include tassa construction through women's cooperatives in Niger.

Arid soils lack moisture while infertile soils lack vital nutrition such as nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. However these two problems are often closely associated.

The causes of increasing aridity are complex and can be both natural and man-made. Arid environments and their location are determined by their climate and so experience intense periods of heat and short but often intense rain in a seasonal climate known as Tropical Wet and Dry. What rain that falls often lands on sparsely vegetated soils and quickly evaporates away. Arid and semi-arid areas have a negative water balance meaning that evapotranspiration and stores of water exceed the inputs of precipitation.

Infertility is caused by low organic content and biomass decay, thin soils and therefore limited mineral content, and weak leaching leading to a build-up of salt from transpiration. However interference through population pressure, over cultivation, deforestation and overgrazing. These factors increase the fragility of soils and threaten agricultural practice in hot and arid environments.

Student Activity_Processes_Aridity vs Fertility

Read the following text on the challenges of aridity and fertility and summarise the text as a 140 character tweet

Access to Irrigation

Student Activity_Place and Processes_ Photo Discussion

Examine the photo of irrigated crop circles in Saudi Arabia below and discuss

  1. Where you think the water comes from?
  2. The impacts of this
  3. Who is doing the farming

Student Activity_Place and Possibilities_How Sustainable is Wheat Production in Saudi Arabia?

  1. Describe the trend in wheat production shown in the graph below
  2. Why do think the government is closing farms?

There are many examples of turning the desert green and fertile. Irrigation is used to bring water to the desert and artificial fertilizers bring fertility. Today massive greening projects are underway all over the world from the USA to China and across North Africa and the Middle East. These intensive greening projects produce, cotton, date palms, wheat and even potatoes through the modern irrigation and use of artificial fertilizers and herbicides. The image to the right shows irrigated crop circles seen from satellite imagery over Saudi Arabia. These are formed from the use of specialized center pivots. However this method of irrigation is not without its problems.

Irrigated crop circles in Saudi Arabia

The main problem with this type of irrigation is that no level of technology can prevent water loss if the climate is simply too hot. It is thought that over 90% of the water released from Egyptian and Saudi Arabian center pivots is evaporated before it even reaches the ground. This unsustainable use of water from aquifers has a very short lifespan with wheat farming in Saudi Arabia now considered completely unprofitable, with rising costs and depleting water.

Student Activity_Place and Processes_Center Pivot Irrigation

Watch the following animated clip on how modern center pivot irrigation works and write notes on how center pivot irrigation systems can help grow more food with less water.

Discuss whether you think this is an opportunity for all people and places?

Student Activity_Power_Unequal Access to Irrigation

Read the following handout featuring an adapted Al Jazeera article on unequal access to irrigation and write a summary of your own on the reasons for the gender divide in terms of access to water.

Unequal Access to Irrigation

Unequal Access to Irrigation

There have been many studies that show that with improved access to resources including water comes improved food security to households and reduced poverty. However, there is inequality to access to water resources at both the household and the national scale. Countries have formany reasons favoured a policy of privatisation that has provided biased provision to commercial farmers over subsistence farmers. In addition the international community and aid agencies have long biased there support towards male farmers over women farmers. There are a number of causes of this:

  • Women's insecure rights to land act as a barrier.
  • Water access may be dependent on access to credit for land purchase, an area where women also face constraints.
  • There is often fierce competition for irrigated land, and because women have less social or political power, they tend to lose out in the struggle.
  • The view that women cannot contribute fully to irrigation system maintenance acts to exclude them (for instance, in Kenya). However, in some countries, women are as active as men in digging irrigation canals and maintaining them.
  • There may be a cultural association of irrigation water rights with males (in the same way that larger livestock and animal traction is often considered men's domain).

In addition to this gender inequality there exists an inequality between different women groups. The following article adapted from a 2016 Al Jazeera piece titled, ‘Female Farmers Suffer Most in Southern Africa Drought’

In the semi-arid, southern African country of Botswana, women rely heavily on irrigation to grow vegetables during the long dry season. These crops are produced for home consumption and to generate needed income.

But differences in water access among female vegetable farmers in Botswana had a huge influence on whether or not commercial horticulture helps improve household food security.

Wealthy female farmers have the financial resources, or access to credit, to invest in boreholes. For these women, increasing commercialisation of vegetable production (or selling a larger share of their crop) leads to clear gains in household food security.

This contrasts with poorer female gardeners who can't afford a well, and water their gardens with purchased tap water. From them, there are only modest food security gains that accompany increasing commercial gardening.

Still others get their water from a river, where the costs are much lower, and they do very well when they focus on feeding their families. Interestingly, this last group sees a decline in household food security when they begin selling more and consuming less of the vegetables they grow.

Why the difference in these outcomes? Wealthier female farmers with land can afford the upfront costs of a borehole, and often have the necessary connections to successfully engage with the market, allowing them to cover the costs of their initial investment and go on to make a reasonable profit that enhances their food security.

Those with lower water costs, the river water users, face less pressure to commercialise to cover costs, and do very well directly feeding their families rather that attempting to negotiate the vagaries of the marketplace.

Tap water users have the most difficult situation because they mostly commercialise to cover the cost of the water they are using, yet do not always have the connections to negotiate the marketplace, leading to modest income gains and minimal food security benefits

These results bring to light at least two important issues related to food security, agriculture and resource access in Sub-Saharan Africa. First, while increasing commercialisation of agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa has been championed as a pathway to improved food security, this view neglects how access to resources is a complicating factor. Growing more crops for the market may make sense for some, namely wealthy farmers who make the investments to secure water access and are commercially savvy. In other cases, selling more crops on the market may actually undermine food security.

Second, in Botswana there is a significant gender component to water access. The historical significance of the cattle industry, which is dominated by men, has meant that government agencies and programmes support the development of water sources for cattle to the exclusion of other agricultural activities.

A national system that gives first priority to male livelihoods forces female horticulturalists to either find creative ways to negotiate these constraints or to see their gardens flounder and household food security benefits dwindle. Recognising the importance of affordable access to water for agricultural success is important in Botswana and Sub-Saharan Africa more broadly.

In Botswana it means that government programmes supporting women's gardening activities will not be successful unless they recognise and address female farmers' unequal access to water.More broadly, the international development community, which has focused on improving food security through commercial agriculture, must acknowledge the importance of unequal resource access.

Commercialisation of agriculture often does not lead to welfare improvements if the power dynamics involved in resource access are not recognised and addressed. In fact, greater commercialisation may increase vulnerability and food insecurity where inequitable access persists.

Addressing women's inequitable access to water resources will only become more important in Southern Africa as the region grapples with climate change, increasing rainfall variability and growing need for irrigation.

Student Activity_Place and Possibilities_ Greening the Desert in Jordan

Watch the following clip on the use of permaculture in Jordan

Student Activity_Place and Possibilities_ Zai Pits in Burkina Faso

Watch the following explanation of zai construction (tassa in Niger) and complete the worksheet provided.

Zai Pits Worksheet

Starter Activity_Power_ Press Release Dafur Genocide

Watch the press release on Dafur and discuss why this genocide links to the course

Student Activity_Place, Power and Possibilities_ Access to Land

Discuss why you think land tenures (legal right to land) is so important to increasing field production in extreme environments

Watch the following video to 4.15, which documents the complex land/resource conflicts in the Dafur region of Sudan from 2003.

Answer the questions on the worksheet provided.

Land Access Conflicts in Darfur

The following article provides further reading into the complex nature of land rights in Dafur

Student Activity_ Place, Power and Possibilities_Gender Conflict over Land Rights in Niger

Watch the following video based in Niger to do with with cooperatives and gender conflct over land rights

  1. Describe the location and the tassa agricultural system?
  2. Why are tassa's successful?
  3. What are the route causes to the problems in this excample?
  4. How do you think the conditions of extreme environments exacerbates the problem?

Salinisation is the accumulation of soluble salts, such as sodium, magnesium and calcium in soil, to the extent that soil fertility is severely reduced. It is regarded as a major cause of soil degradation and is therefore a leading factor in the process of desertification. There are a number of causes of salinisation in hot arid environments, principally increased salinity is caused by the evapotranspiration of water from the surface, which leaves deposits of soluble salt in the soil. The heat of the sun draws water and salts upwards and it crystalizes in the upper layers.


This can impede root growth and infiltration rates that in turn increases surface run-off or can cause surface waterlogging where impermeable crystal layers form. In hot arid environments where vegetation cover is limited and under pressure, infiltration rates can be increased, which leads to a rising of the water table. This in turn increases salinity through a process of capillary rise. In addition, waterlogging due to excessive irrigation practices and leaching methods also increase salinity in soils.

Student Activity_Place and Processes_Saline and Sodic Soils in Australia

Watch the following clip and make notes on the causes and signs of salinity in soils.

Student Activity_Processes_Explaining the Process of Salinisation

Salinisation Worksheet

Complete the worksheet activities based on salinisation

Study the following maps and describe the pattern of salinisation in Western Australia

Increasing salinisation in Western Australia

Salinisation Processes, adapted from Dept of conservation, forests and Land 1987

Student Assessment - Mind Map on the Opportunities and Challenges of Agriculture in Extreme Environments

Students should create a one page mind map of the agricultural opportunities and challenges, to include place examples covered in class. This can be a full extension of the opening starter activity or they can begin again.

The mind map should be full of the located examples developed in the course. It should be on A3 paper and as result becomes the revision resource for the topic area.

Full explanation and evaluation of a broad range of opportunities and challenges in a variety of extreme environments

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