Salinity control

Salinity control

Salinity control relates to controlling the problem of soil salinity and reclaiming salinized agricultural land. The aim of soil salinity control is to prevent soil degradation by salinization and reclaim already salty (saline) soils. Soil reclamation is also called soil improvement, rehabilitation, remediation, recuperation, or amelioration.

The figure shows an example of declining crop yields caused by high soil salinity. It was made with the SegReg program.

The soil salinity problem

Salty (saline) soils are soils that have a high salt content. The predominant salt is normally sodium chloride (NaCl, "table salt"). Saline soils are therefore also sodic soils but there may be sodic soils that are not saline but alkaline.

Salty soils are a common feature in irrigated lands in arid and semi-arid regions as well as areas that have poor or little crop production. The problems are often associated with high water tables, caused by a lack of natural subsurface drainage to the underground. Poor subsurface drainage may be caused by insufficient transport capacity of the aquifer or because water cannot exit the aquifer for instance, if it is situated in a topographical depression.

Worldwide, the major factor in the development of saline soils is a lack of precipitation. Most naturally saline soils are found in (semi)arid regions and climates of the globe.

The prime cause of human-caused salinization is irrigation. River water used in irrigation contains salts. All irrigation water, however 'sweet', contains salts that remain behind in the soil after the water has evaporated.

For example, assuming irrigation water with a low salt concentration of 0.3 g/l (equal to 0.3 kg/m³ corresponding to an electric conductivity of about 0.5 dS/m) and a modest annual supply of irrigation water of 10,000 m³/ha (almost 3 mm/day) brings 3,000 kg salt/ha each year. In the absence of sufficient natural drainage (as in waterlogged soils) and without a proper leaching and drainage program to remove salts, this would lead to a high soil salinity and reduced crop yields in the long run.

Much of the water used in irrigation has a higher salt content than in this example, which is compounded by that fact that many irrigation projects use a far greater annual supply of water. Sugar cane, for example, needs about 20000 m3/ha of water per year. As a result, irrigated areas often receive more than 3,000 kg/ha of salt per year and some receive as much as 10,000 kg/ha/year.

The secondary cause of salinzation is that irrigation can cause a rise in the water table which can prevents salts in irrigated water from dispersing. Irrigation causes enormous changes to the natural water balance of irrigated lands. Large quantities of water in irrigation projects are not consumed by plants and must go somewhere. In irrigation projects it is impossible to achieve 100% irrigation efficiency where all the irrigation water is consumed by the plants. The maximum attainable irrigation efficiency is about 70% but usually it is less than 60%. This means that minimum 30%, but usually more than 40% of the irrigation water is not evaporated and it must go somewhere.

Most of the water lost this way is stored underground which can change the original hydrology of local aquifers considerably. Many aquifers cannot absorb these quantities of water and, the water table rises leading to waterlogging.

Water logging causes two problems: it reduces the yield of most crops and leads to an accumulation of salts brought in with the irrigation water.

Normally, the salinization of agricultural land affects a considerable areas of irrigation project, to the tune of 20 to 30%. When the agriculture in such a fraction of the land is abandoned, a new salt and water balance is attained, a new equilibrium is reached, and the situation becomes stable.

In India alone, thousands of square kilometers have been severely salinized. China and Pakistan do not lag much behind (perhaps China has even more salt affected land than India). A regional distribution of the 3,230,000 km² of saline land world wide is shown in the following table derived from the FAO/UNESCO Soil Map of the World .

Region Area (106ha)
Africa 69.5
Near and Middle East 53.1
Asia and Far East 19.5
Latin America 59.4
Australia 84.7
North America 16.0
Europe 20.7

Although the principles of the processes of salinization are fairly easy to understand, it is more difficult to explain why certain parts of the land suffer from the problems and other parts do not, or to predict accurately which part of the land will fall victim. The main reason for this is the variation of natural conditions in time and space, the usually uneven distribution of the irrigation water, and the seasonal or yearly changes of agricultural practices.

Only in lands with undulating topography the explanation and prediction is pretty simple: the depression areas will degrade the most. The preparation of salt and water balances for distinguishable sub-areas in the irrigation project, or the use of agro-hydro-salinity models can be helpful in explaining or predicting the extent and severity of the problems.

Principles of salinity control

Drainage is the primary method of controlling soil salinity. The system should permit a small fraction of the irrigation water (about 10 to 20 percent, the drainage or leaching fraction) to be drained and discharged out of the irrigation project.

In irrigated areas where salinity is stable, the salt concentration of the drainage water is normally 5 to 10 times higher than that of the irrigation water. Salt export matches salt import and salt will not accumulate.

When reclaiming already salinized soils, the salt concentration of the drainage water will initially be much higher than that of the irrigation water (for example 50 times higher). Salt export will greatly exceed salt import, so that with the same drainage fraction a rapid desalinization occurs. After one or two years, the soil salinity is decreased so much, that the salinity of the drainage water has come down to a normal value and a new, favorable, equilibrium is reached.

In regions with pronounced dry and wet seasons, drainage may be operated to the wet season, and closed during the dry season. This practice of checked drainage saves irrigation water.

The discharge of salty drainage water problem may pose environmental problems to downstream areas. The environmental hazards must be considered very carefully and, if necessary mitigating measures must be taken. If possible, the drainage must be limited to wet seasons only, when the salty effluent does inflict the least harm. The environmental issues will not be further discussed here.

Drainage systems

Land drainage for soil salinty control is usually by horizontal drainage system (figure left), but vertical systems (figure right) are also employed.

The drainage system designed to evacuate salty water also lowers the water table. To reduce the cost of the system, the lowering must be reduced to a minimum. The highest permissible level of the water table (or the shallowest permissible depth) depends on the irrigation and agricultural practices and kind of crops.

In many cases a seasonal average water table depth of 0.6 to 0.8 m is deep enough. This means that the water table may occasionally be less than 0.6 m (say 0.2 m just after an irrigation or a rain storm). This automatically implies that, in other occasions, the water table will be deeper than 0.8 m (say 1.2 m). The fluctuation of the water table helps in the breathing function of the soil while the expulsion of carbon dioxide (CO2) produced by the plant roots and the inhalation of fresh oxygen (O2) is promoted.

The establishing of a not too deep water table offers the additional advantage that excessive field irrigation is discouraged, as the crop yield would be negatively affected by the resulting elevated water table, and irrigation water may be saved.

The statements made above on the optimum depth of the watertable are very general, because in some instances the required water table may be still shallower than indicated (for example in rice paddies), while in other instances it must be considerably deeper (for example in some orchards). The establishment of the optimum depth of the water table is in the realm of agricultural drainage criteria.

Soil leaching

The unsaturated zone or vadose zone of the soil below the soil surface and the watertable is subject to four main hydrological inflow and outflow factors:

  • Infiltration of rain and irrigation water (Irr) into the soil through the soil surface (Inf) : Inf = Rain + Irr
  • Evaporation of soil water through plants and directly into the air through the soil surface (Evap)
  • Percolation of water from the unsaturated zone soil into the groundwater through the watertable (Perc)
  • Capillary rise of groundwater moving by capillary suction forces into the unsaturated zone(Cap)

In steady state (i.e. the amount of water stored in the unsaturated zone does not change in the long run) the water balance of the unsaturated zone reads: Inflow = Outflow, thus:

  • Inf + Cap = Evap + Perc     or :     Irr + Rain + Cap = Evap + Perc

and the salt balance is

  • Irr.Ci + Cap.Cc = Evap.Fc.Ce + Perc.Cp + Ss

where Ci is the salt concentration of the irrigation water, Cc is the salt concentration of the capillary rise, equal to the salt concentration of the upper part of the groundwater body, Fc is the fraction of the total evaporation transpired by plants, Ce is the salt concentration of the water taken up by the plant roots, Cp is the salt concentration of the percolation water, and Ss is the increase of salt storage in the unsaturated soil. This assumes that the rainfall contains no salts. Only along the coast this may not be true. Further it is assumed that no runoff or surface drainage occurs.
The amount of salts removed by plants (Evap.Fc.Ce) is usually negligibly small: Evap.Fc.Ce = 0

The salt concentration Cp can be taken as a part of the salt concentration of the soil in the unsaturated zone (Cu) giving: Cp = Le.Cu , where Le is the leaching efficiency. The leaching efficiency is often in the order of 0.7 to 0.8 , but in poorly structured, heavy clay soils it may be less. In the Leziria Grande polder in the delta of the Tagus river in Portugal it was found that the leaching efficiency was only 0.15 .
Assuming that one wishes to avoid the soil salinity to increase and maintain the soil salinity Cu at a desired level Cd we have:
Ss = 0 , Cu = Cd and Cp = Le.Cd. Hence the salt balance can be simplified to:

  • Perc.Le.Cd = Irr.Ci + Cap.Cc

Setting the amount percolation water required to fulfill this salt balance equal to Lr (the leaching requirement) it is found that:

  • Lr = (Irr.Ci + Cap.Cc) / Le.Cd .

Substituting herein Irr = Evap + Perc − Rain − Cap and re-arranging gives :

  • Lr = [(Evap−Rain).Ci + Cap(Cc−Ci) ] / (Le.Cd − Ci)

With this the irrigation and drainage requirements for salinity control can can be computed too.
In irrigation projects in (semi)arid zones and climates it is important to check the leaching requirement, whereby the field irrigation efficiency (indicating the fraction of irrigation water percolating to the underground) is to be taken into account.
More elaborate water and salt balances can be viewed online : .

Soil salinity models

The majority of the computer models available for water and solute transport in the soil (e.g. Swatre , DrainMod ) are based on Richard's differential equation for the movement of water in unsaturated soil in combination with a differential salinity dispersion equation. The models require input of soil charac­teristics like the relation between unsaturated soil moisture content, water tension, hydraulic conductivity and dispersivity.
These relations vary to a great extent from place to place and are not easy to measure. The models use short time steps and need at least a daily data base of hydrological phenomena. Altogether this makes model application to a fairly large project the job of a team of specialists with ample facilities.

Soil salinity model: SaltMod

Saltmod is computer program for the prediction of the salinity of soil moisture, groundwater and drainage water, the depth of the watertable, and the drain discharge in irrigated agricultural lands, using different (geo)hydrologic conditions, varying water management options, including the use of ground water for irrigation, and several cropping rotation schedules. The water management options include irrigation, drainage, and the use of subsurface drainage water from pipe drains, ditches or wells for irrigation.
Download SaltMod from : .


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