The future health of our forests requires prudent investment now

In Abu Dhabi, there are 242,000 hectares of forest that cannot survive without constant irrigation – and that presents challenges, writes Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak

An experimental demonstration site for a project studying the water requirements of ghaf trees at the Khab Al Dahs forest, near Madinat Zayed in Abu Dhabi’s Western Region. Ravindranath K / The National
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In Abu Dhabi, there are 242,000 hectares of forest containing approximately 20 million trees of which 88 per cent are unique to this region. The benefit of these forests include the protection of critical infrastructure such as roads from sand movement, the provision of habitat for approximately 55,000 animals such as gazelle and rising quality of life standards in Abu Dhabi.

However, these forests cannot survive in our climate without continuous management and irrigation.

The Environment Agency Abu Dhabi has managed these forests since 2006 with the implementation of a strategic approach to maintain and enhance the benefits of this cultural heritage while ensuring their long-term environmental and financial viability.

The forests of Abu Dhabi consume around 214 million cubic metres of water. This water is made up of 80 per cent groundwater and 20 per cent treated sewage effluent and desalinated water.

Groundwater in Abu Dhabi is close to a non-renewable resource. As a result of irrigation for agriculture and forestry, we are extracting more than 20 times the volume that is recharged annually. The result is the rapid depletion of aquifers. Switching to alternative water sources, in particular desalinated water, comes with its own challenges of high cost and high emissions of greenhouse gases, other air pollutants and brine.

To ease the pressure on our water resources and ensure the longer term viability of the forests, the agency has been focusing on reducing water use in forests. As of January this year, we have reduced the water use in forests by 28 per cent from 2015.

Irrigation schedules and equipment have been modified where appropriate, leading to focused and targeted irrigation and an improvement in water efficiency. In addition, 56 forests have now been supplied with treated sewage effluent resulting in improved growth due to lower salinity and enhanced nutrient availability.

In 2014, the agency established a research programme with the government of New Zealand and the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture with the mission to study the water requirements of date palm and other native tree species. It was assumed that forest trees require more water in the summer and therefore irrigation is increased.

However, our research shows that for some tree species such as ghaf and sider, higher summer temperatures cause the trees to lose their leaves and adopt a near dormant state, which means they require less water. We are now in the process of working out how these results can be translated from the experimental plots to the whole forest.

Beyond water savings, the agency has also made other improvements in how forests are managed. Between 2012 and 2015, we embarked on a programme to electrify water pumps and so far we have replaced 593 diesel water pumps with electric pumps with a small number powered by renewable solar energy.

This shift, coupled with an overall decrease in pumping, has resulted in an estimated reduction of over 10,500 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year or the equivalent of taking 2,200 cars off the road a year. We have implemented the first genetic evaluation of the sand gazelle to better understand the species. In another significant initiative, the agency, in partnership with Abu Dhabi Sewerage Services Company and the Regulation and Supervision Bureau, has been testing the use of bio solids from sewage treatment to enhance the soil condition in forests.

The agency has also adopted and embraced this improvement and efficiency programme for forests and achieved significant success in reducing the cost and water use of forests while optimise the benefits.

We have now handed the management of the forests over to the Department of Municipal Affairs and Transport to continue the implementation of this work. The agency will work closely with the department to ensure the findings of the research into the water demands of different tree species is used to inform management plans for forests leading to water savings.

Our continuous drive for water efficiency will be enhanced by the implementation of the new groundwater law (Law No 5 of 2016 for Groundwater Regulation), which enables the agency to issue permits for groundwater with a specified limit on the water that can be taken.

It is only through this continued focus on efficiency in forestry that we can ensure the long-term viability of our forests and to ensure the benefits are optimised and available for future generations.

Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak is the secretary general of the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi