A growing thirst we need to curb

Agriculture uses up 80 per cent of the UAE's water, but scientists say much of it is wasted on crops that are no longer relevant.

Dubai - August 25, 2009 - Dr. Nurul a Akhand, an irrigation management scientist at the International Center for Bioslaine Agriculture stands in a field of Pearl Millet in one of the centers research fields in Dubai August 25, 2009. The center tests the ability of different feed crops and grasses to grow in different degrees of salinity. (Photo by Jeff Topping/The National)  *** Local Caption ***  JT001-0825-AGRICULTURE_MG_0318.jpg
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Agriculture uses up 80 per cent of the UAE's water. However, according to scientists, much of it is wasted on the production of crops that are no longer relevant. Now the experts are calling for change, not only in policy, but in the nation's culture as well. Vesela Todorova reports For 40 years, agriculture in the UAE has benefited from generous state support, born out of fears over food security and a determination to alleviate poverty.

Today, however, with the nation battling to meet its ever-growing thirst for water, experts say farming is wasting precious resources, and have called on the Government to re-evaluate that support. "It makes no sense to have agriculture here," says Dr Mohammed Raouf, manager of the environment programme at the Gulf Research Centre. "We are wasting a very scarce resource." Cultivating farmland in an arid desert climate makes little economic sense, says Dr Raouf.

"Agriculture consumes around 80 per cent of the water in the country but its contribution to the gross domestic product is not more than four per cent." There is an emotional hurdle to be overcome. Agriculture is inextricably linked to the UAE's heritage. Among the chief crops are dates and forage for camels. While both were once vital components of life here, today they contribute almost nothing towards feeding a developed nation of almost five million people.

"The local production of essential grains is not significant," says Dr Shawki Barghouti, director general of the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) in Dubai. "Local agriculture is not providing food security." In addition, says Dr Barghouti, the sector's vast water needs and extensive use of fertilisers and pesticides are damaging the environment, as well as the nation's dwindling and inadequate groundwater reserves.

"The Government did not pay much attention to this before, they did not want to believe it or act on it," says Dr Barghouti. "They take it more seriously now." One government body in the vanguard of the new thinking is the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi (EAD). In its Abu Dhabi Water Resources Masterplan, published in March, it called for action to make UAE farming more sustainable. The report did not pull its punches. Agriculture and forestry, it pointed out, consume the vast majority of Abu Dhabi's water resources. Worse, "neither uses the resource efficiently because of inducements offered by extensive support subsidies, including those supporting farm construction, land preparation and irrigation infrastructure".

The emirate's total water consumption in 2007 was estimated at 2.8 billion cubic metres. Of this, says the agency, agriculture and forestry swallowed 76 per cent. Most of the water used by farmers comes from underground wells. As farming has intensified, the natural aquifers storing that water have become increasingly depleted. "The high rates of agricultural water use jeopardise Abu Dhabi's only strategic water reserve: groundwater," says the report.

Abu Dhabi's groundwater supplies are so over-tapped that, at the present rate of use, they will run out within 50 years, placing an escalating demand on the desalination of seawater, with its high costs, both in terms of the fuel bill and the damage to the marine environment. The plundering of groundwater reserves has a further complication. As more water is pumped out to irrigate farms, the water table drops, leaving the remaining water even higher in salt content. In addition, the extensive use of chemicals in farming has caused significant pollution of groundwater. In Al Ain, groundwater wells can no longer be tapped to provide drinking water. Agriculture also consumes expensively produced desalinated water. Official figures suggest that 11 per cent of Abu Dhabi's desalinated water goes into farmland, but the true figure "is likely to be far higher", says the masterplan.

Besides the rapid growth in farming, the choice of crops has also played a negative role. Rhodes grass, is a major cause for concern, says Dr Mohammed Dawoud, manager of the natural resources department at the agency. "There are 24,000 private farms in the emirate. Most cultivate Rhodes grass." This is without doubt a sensitive subject, linked to the nation's sense of self. Rhodes grass is planted exclusively to feed camels and other livestock, such as goats, sheep and cows. Once essential for human existence, today people no longer rely on the camel for transport or as a source of meat and milk. Nevertheless, for many people, owning a herd of camels remains a matter of pride and prestige.

"The problem is not scientific, it is cultural," says Dr Dawoud. "It is very difficult to change people's attitudes. It needs time." Rhodes grass in Abu Dhabi alone supports an estimated livestock population of well over two million. A perennial plant, it does well in hot climates and tolerates water high in salinity. It is also extremely thirsty and consumes 20,000 cubic metres of water per hectare per year. According to the masterplan, it "accounts for 60 per cent of agricultural water use [and] is responsible for much of the environmental damage and groundwater mining".

Furthermore, "the combined environmental impact of Rhodes grass and livestock is probably responsible for two million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, or ten per cent of the national total". This figure includes the energy cost of the water used to irrigate the grass, and the greenhouse gases produced by the animals themselves. There is, says Dr Barghouti, much more to be taken into account than water consumption. "Agriculture has a strong cultural value," he says. "It is more than money. It is tradition, culture and the quality of life in villages and small towns."

With this in mind, scientists in the UAE are not calling for a complete end to agriculture in the country, but are focusing on ways to make the sector more efficient. "We can do agriculture but we have to do it on a sustainable basis," says Dr Raouf. "We need to identify the maximum we can do. This cannot go on forever." Dr Nurul Akhand, an irrigation management scientist at the ICBA, says better crop choices would go a long way. For example, farmers could plant drought-tolerant crops such as Sesbania, cowpeas and indigenous grasses.

Another issue, says Dr Akhand, is field crops - cucumber, tomato, cabbage and eggplant - grown typically in the northern Emirates. "Do we need to grow tomatoes and field vegetables when we can import them? The best way is to grow high-value crops in greenhouses." Such "protected" agriculture increases productivity and is more water-efficient. Another option being applied in some places is hydroponic agriculture, in which plants are grown not in soil but in artificial nutrient solutions. However, these systems require more skill to operate. There needs to be constant monitoring of the water quality to eradicate the possibility of disease.

Equally sensitive is the issue of the generous subsidies given to farmers: "This policy encourages the consumption of more and more water," says Dr Raouf. Aided by subsidies and gifts of free land, small private farms in Abu Dhabi expanded from a total of fewer than 2,000 hectares in 1970 to 80,000 hectares by 2007. The total cultivated area in the emirate is 419,000 hectares. Forests account for three-quarters of this, consuming as much water as domestic use.

In 2006, about Dh800 million in subsidies was given by the Government in Abu Dhabi for Rhodes grass alone, says the masterplan. In addition, it adds, farmers only pay 14 per cent of electricity costs and any solution would require raising the tariffs for both energy and water. Change is under way. Subsidies in Abu Dhabi have decreased. The Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority, which is taking over the regulation of agriculture from the municipalities, says a plan for the sector has been submitted to the Executive Council.

It includes recommendations on subsidies, taking into account the interests of farmers as well as environmental concerns. vtodorova@thenational.ae