Permaculture in the Gobi!
Hey lovely permies :-)
I'm working in Mongolia at the moment with a big NGO and we're currently working on a site in the Gobi. There are 3 cooperatives working with our project. They have been operating for 4 years, but permaculture was only introduced last year.
Obviously water availability is the biggest limiting factor to their production. They each have about 2 hectares of cropping land as well as summer greenhouses. The project initially provided them with solar-powered pumps to pump water from wells, but unfortunately these are not operating effectively. The coops don't have enough water to supply the full 2 hectares. There are also very strong winds during the spring which dry the soils and blow off mulch.
They have planted windbreaks with sea buckthorn and more recently chinese poplar. Though I think we need to improve this, as the sea buckthorn are not really suited to the climate and aren't growing well and the chinese poplar has a short life span. I have investigated various other tree and shrub species including caragana, siberian elm and saxaul which could be used. Does anyone have some ideas on that?
And any other suggestions for how we might conserve water more efficiently? I'm thinking of making mulch pits on contour to help soak some more water in as well as growing green manure crops to increase organic matter in the soil. Does anyone have any suggestions for good green manure crops for drylands? so far we've thought of chickpeas, vetch, rye.
Let me know if you have any cool ideas!
Surprised this post has been up so long and nobody has stepped up to the plate!
Turn the problems into solutions....perhaps you need windmills to pump the water and not solar. With the mechanical pumps running direct (without converting the wind into electricity first), you have a simple, relatively archaic technology that should be easier to maintain and repair in the remote hinterland. You need to be aware of the danger of aquifer depletion though, and perhaps find a way to keep track of where your water table is so that you don't draw it down too much. The best way is to pump directly into elevated tanks or cisterns from which irrigation systems can be pressurized through gravity. Even six feet of drop will run some drip.
Observe what's already growing locally, or regionally if necessary, and choose your pioneer plants, such as windbreak species, from these before trialing untested introductions. You might need to provide some artificial windbreak, such as a fence, to get the natural windbreak to establish. I'm surprised any kind of poplar or elm would grow....I think of both as moisture lovers (so beware of their roots getting into irrigated areas). A short lifespan shouldn't be an issue....I imagine you are shy of fuelwood too! Just keep new cuttings always coming on.
Soil moisture holding capacity can always be improved by organic matter of any sort. Nothing organic that enters the site should leave, even humanure. If the climate is such that it breaks down too quickly, biochar is the answer. But I think your climate is too cold and dry for that....it should be possible to raise soil organic matter by simple addition and diligent recycling, provided erosion losses are minimized. What about stormwater runoff? Is there potential for off-site redirection and capture? At the very least, no stormwater should be permitted to leave the site on the surface...it must infiltrate. Swaling and keyline ripping are the classical broadacre solutions, and sheet mulching the small-scale alternative...use one or other or both!
Is there a comparatively reliable rainy season? This is when to focus on your covercrops and main staple crops.