UAE farmers innovate to overcome climate change challenges

Rising temperature and dwindling water supply pose many difficulties for farmers already dealing with arid weather

Ahmed Al Hefeiti showing one of mangoes he grows at his nursery Wadi Dafta Plantation in Fujairah. Pawan Singh / The National
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As summer temperatures reach 48°C by mid-July, farmers in the UAE are turning to modern techniques to overcome conditions largely attributable to climate change.

Farmers around the world have, in recent years, been experiencing the effects of climate change with extreme weather and less predictable seasons transforming pastures and croplands.

In a bid to mitigate the effects of climate change, the UAE and US unveiled a joint fund at Cop26 in Glasgow to help prepare the agricultural sector.

The fund, which passed its $10 billion target in May, will go towards projects that can lessen the effects of climate change, prepare for its consequences and help lift people out of poverty.

In the UAE, Ahmed Al Hefeiti, a retired army officer, dreams of making the desert bloom with exotic fruits but he knows he faces a mounting challenge.

Being on the front lines of climate change means he has to innovate every year to ensure his Wadi Dafta Plantation, spread across 2,000 sq ft at the base of the Hajar mountains in Fujairah, thrives in the extreme weather.

Climate change presents multiple challenges for UAE farmers, including the need for enhanced knowledge and experience to adapt to its effects
Dr Mohammad Al Oun, food security consultant

He grows a vast variety of fruits, including mangoes and lemons from Pakistan, 15 different types of banana, Chinese bayberries, Japanese oranges, cashews from India, chikoo, lychees and star fruits.

To be successful, it requires as much attention and ingenuity.

“The weather is getting hotter every year. The land is getting hotter and so is the water,” Mr Al Hefeiti told The National.

As temperatures rise to unprecedented levels around the globe, UAE farmers face multiple climate-related challenges.

Unpredictable weather

Rising seawater levels, caused by global warming, have led to the intrusion of salt water into the groundwater table, increasing salinity in the soil.

The changing climate is also altering rainfall patterns, causing unpredictable weather events such as drought or floods, which destroy crops and production facilities.

It has left farmers facing water scarcity, diminishing yields and escalating production costs.

Mr Al Hefeiti, who is following his father into farming, says many natural springs have dried up.

Meet the Emirati man growing hundreds of exotic fruits and plants in his nursery

Meet the Emirati man growing hundreds of exotic fruits and plants in his nursery

“Before, we had a spring in our farms until a few years ago. We used to get water the whole winter and even in summer. But they are all gone now,” he said.

“It is more challenging. The water is getting saltier and the winds are so hot that they harm the plants.

“The weather has also become unpredictable. Last year, we had rain in the middle of summer and many crops were destroyed.”

Faced with these challenges, many farmers are turning to new techniques to safeguard crops and livelihoods.

Among the innovations transforming the agricultural landscape in the UAE are using resilient and drought-tolerant crop varieties, improving fertilisers, introducing vertical farming techniques to optimise land use and installing greenhouse structures to shield crops from harsh climatic conditions.

Adapting innovative technologies

Roma Vora, Co Founder of Aranya Farms in Abu Dhabi, said rising summer temperatures have become more intense, prompting changes in planting and harvesting schedules.

“We have noticed that the saltier water in Abu Dhabi has affected the sweetness of fruits like watermelon,” Ms Vora told The National.

“We usually start seeding in the middle of September and have the first harvest by October or November depending on the crop. But this year, we are growing until the end of May but we do not expect the first harvest until November.”

Ms Vora, who runs the farm along with her mother-in-law, said they are constantly seeking new ways to improve their yields and maintain quality.

Aranya Farms has transitioned their vertical farms to organic production, allowing them to grow a wider range of crops in soil, such as cucumber, cherry tomatoes, ochra, eggplant, bottle gourd, and various other fruits and vegetables.

They have also diversified its business by engaging in the import and export of organic fertilisers.

“We conduct our own research to identify the most effective fertilisers and seeds for the unique growing conditions,” she said.

“The farm is also exploring technology in water management to improve water absorption in the desert environment.”

Addressing climate change impact

Dr Mohammad Al Oun, a food security consultant and climate smart agriculture expert who has advised the UAE government on resilient agricultural systems, says there are “observable trends” that show climate change's impact on UAE farming.

“Over the past five decades, temperatures in the region have risen by approximately 1.5°C, leading to challenges such as water scarcity, soil issues, and increased pest infestations, resulting in some farmers abandoning their agricultural activities,” Dr Al Oun told The National.

“Climate change presents multiple challenges for UAE farmers, including the need for enhanced knowledge and experience to adapt to its effects.

“The impacts of climate change include decreased crop growth and yield, the potential overuse of pesticides and fertilisers, compromised food quality and safety, economic implications, social consequences, water scarcity, soil salinisation, extreme weather events, pests and diseases and changing crop suitability.”

Dr Al Oun said UAE farmers should adopt climate-smart agricultural practices like precision farming and vertical farming, collaborate throughout the value chain to promote sustainable production and consumption, invest in capacity building programmes for farmers and encourage research and innovation in agriculture.

He said GCC countries are way ahead of other nations addressing the climate change impact on farming.

“The Gulf Co-operation Council countries have taken proactive steps in adapting to climate farming, surpassing many western countries,” he said.

“These nations have incorporated climate action plans, food security strategies, and initiatives promoting a green and recycling-based economy to address the impact of climate change.”

Climate farming

Experts say climate farming, or controlled environment agriculture, has proven to be a reliable solution.

Climate farming is the practice of growing crops In controlled environments such as greenhouses, glass houses or vertical farms.

“In the UAE and GCC in general, the extreme temperature and water scarcity are the main challenges to production,” said Hassan Halawy, an agri-tech and climate farming expert based in the UAE.

“CEA optimises water consumption and creates optimal growing conditions with its temperature control resources, in addition to reducing the outbreak of pests and diseases.”

He said it can help extend production season sometimes reaching year-round and optimise land use.

“Addressing the impact of climate change requires an integrated approach that combines many initiatives,” said Mr Halawy.

“We need to create sustainable food systems that increase yield while minimising the use of water and electricity.

“Powered with the advancement of agritech, and R&D many solutions are now available to mitigate [to a certain extent] the risks of the climate change and their relevant impact on food production,” Mr Halawy said.

Updated: July 11, 2023, 6:18 AM