Design dilemma: why aren’t we planting more ghaf trees in the UAE?

The UAE’s national tree is a cultural symbol and environmental solution, yet its potential in urban areas is not fully explored

RAS AL KHAIMAH, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - September 24:  The ghaf tree forest near the Digdagga area of Ras Al Khaimah on September 24, 2008. The ghaf tree is an indigenous tree which grows in the flat sandy plains of the UAE deserts. Its very long roots ensure it can reach water from deep within the ground allowing it to survive in the hot desert conditions.  (Randi Sokoloff / The National) Prosopis africana. Prosopis cineraria is a species of flowering tree in the pea family, Fabaceae, that is native to arid portions of Western and South Asia,[1] such as the Arabian[2] and Thar Deserts.[3] Common names include Ghaf (Arabic),[1] Khejri, Jant/Janti, Sangri (Rajasthan), Jand (Punjabi), Kandi (Sindh), Banni (Kannada), Vanni (Tamil), Sami, Sumri (Gujarat). It is the provincial tree of the Sindh province of Pakistan. Prosopis cineraria is a small to medium-sized thorny tree, with slender branches armed with conical thorns and with light bluish-green foliage. The leaflets are dark green with thin casting of light shade. It coppices profusely.

The tree is evergreen or nearly so. It produces new flush leaves before summer. The flowers are small in size and yellow or creamy white in colour, appear from March to May after the new flush of leaves. The seedpods are formed soon thereafter and grow rapidly in size, attaining full size after about two months.

It is well adapted to browsing by animals, such as camels and goats. Young plants assume a cauliflower-like, bushy appearance in areas open to goat browsing.

Prosopis cineraria requires strong light, and dense shade will kill seedlings. The crown (aboveground portion) grows slowly.

The root system of Prosopis cineraria is long and well developed, securing a firm footing for the plant and allowing it to obtain moisture from groundwater. Taproot penetration up to 35 m (115 ft) in soil depth has been reported. Like other members of the family Fabaceae, symbiotic bacteria found in its root nodules allow it to fix nitrogen in th *** Local Caption ***  RS031-GHAF.jpgRS031-GHAF.jpg
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The logo of the UAE's Year of Tolerance 2019 is the indigenous ghaf, a fitting motif for several reasons. Not only is this evergreen tree significant to the heritage of the country, but it also helps to cut carbon emissions and consumes little water. The tree ranges from three to five metres, and its roots can go as deep as 30 metres, so it is able to survive the harsh summer.

Almost every part of the plant serves a purpose: the leaves are used as fodder and the bark has traditionally been used as medicine. Its canopy, meanwhile, creates a microhabitat for birds and insects, and it provides much-needed shade.

Recent global climate negotiations are pushing all countries to take more aggressive steps to reduce their carbon footprint, and expanding the planting of ghafs should be recognised as a significant step – a single ghaf can sequester 34.65 kilograms of CO2 emissions per year.

Most urban areas experience warmer temperatures compared to the outskirts. This is known as urban heat island (UHI) effect, which is mainly caused by the concentration of buildings and other infrastructure in cities. Planting the ghaf tree in urban areas is a sensible solution to counter UHI. But the truth is, the ghaf has not been a popular choice in modern landscaping.  

Tatiana Antonelli Abella, founder and managing director of Goumbook, the company behind the Give a Ghaf tree-planting programme, explains two of the challenges faced in rooting the ghaf in public areas. First, if a row of trees needs to be planted along the side of the road or within the median, there needs to be enough space for the roots to grow and the tree to expand. Most roads in the UAE don't have enough space to support this. Second, the ­aesthetic that is sought after by most landscape architects seems to be one of flowering plants, which are not as water-efficient.  

Give a Ghaf is working to redress this situation. Thanks to its efforts, Abu Dhabi and Al Ain have emerged as pioneers in the practice of incorporating ghaf trees. Ajman Municipality planted 2,000 trees on the Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Road intersection. Once the trees are fully grown, this green patch will sit in contrast to the sand dunes along the rest of the highway.

ABU DHABI, UAE. March 17, 2010. Ghaf trees provide shade on avenues with pedestrian traffic.

In Dubai, a Dewa building in Healthcare City planted a few ghaf trees along its boundary wall. This is a great use of the buffer space around heavy infrastructural buildings. About 50 ghaf trees also have been planted on the road leading to the entrance of Dubai South. The median is wide enough to support them and will provide soil stability to what is large, dusty ground.

Finally, a lone ghaf tree is being protected as the Expo 2020 site is built around it – a symbol of the green practices the event and the country hope to put in place.

Karishma Asarpota is an urban planner and researcher