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Rice varieties that can grow in salty conditions are being sent to help farmers whose fields were flooded with seawater by the Indian Ocean tsunami.

This International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) initiative is targeted at Malaysia and Sri Lanka, where rice-growing regions were badly affected by the tsunami: the waves have left behind substantial salt deposits as well as destroyed crops and eroded soil (see Sri Lankan crops and water hit by tsunami salt).

IRRI is also investigating the situation in India and Indonesia. Officials in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand say that their rice fields were mostly unaffected by the tsunami.

Ren Wang, deputy director-general for research at IRRI, believes the project will be important for the long-term agricultural and economic regeneration of the region. 

"Many of those affected by the tsunami depended on local agriculture not just for food but also for their livelihoods," he said.  

Rajalakshmi Swaminathan from the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in India, has given the initiative cautious approval, describing it as "laudable" but stressing that questions such as whether the rice varieties would grow equally across varied salt concentrations in the soil, and whether the quality of grain would be any different should be answered before the rice is sent to the farmers.

Provided these concerns are addressed, said Swaminathan, the salt-tolerant varieties "would be of great help to the farmers affected by the tsunami". 

IRRI's genebank stocks about 100,000 strains of rice about 40 of which can tolerate salty growing conditions.

As well as shipping rice to the farmers, IRRI is providing advice online about how to grow rice in tsunami-affected fields through its Rice Knowledge Bank.

The website includes guidance (also available on compact discs) on safely storing grain. To help address the shortage of labour that the tsunami death toll caused, it also suggests ways of growing rice that rely on as few people as possible.

IRRI will evaluate the extent of salt damage to coastal rice fields and estimate how much of the land can be reclaimed by growing salt-tolerant rice.

Duncan Macintosh, a spokesperson for IRRI, told SciDev.Net, "It is not possible for IRRI to accurately estimate how long fields will be salt damaged because the situation varies so much from district to district and country to country. Some fields may recover in one year (and after some repair work) but others could take several years."

IRRI is a rice training and research centre, and is one of 15 centres funded by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, an association of public and private donors.

Read more about tsunamis in SciDev.Net's Tsunami update.