Greener irrigation method on trial

An irrigation system being demonstrated at Yas Island aims to cut down on the use of water, fertiliser and labour.

ABU DHABI - 19JUL2011 - James Waters, Representative of EZ-FLO, middle east, showing the flow of water and fertilliser by the new irrigation system called fertigation which has been set up on Yas Island. The new system automatically dispenses fertilliser in micro-dose amounts and is said to save water in Abu Dhabi. Ravindranath K / The National
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ABU DHABI // An irrigation system being demonstrated at Yas Island aims to cut down on the use of water, fertiliser and labour.

Fertigation is the name given to the application of fertilisers through an irrigation system. It works by using pumps to push liquid fertiliser from a storage tank through a pressurised irrigation system in a "one-off hit" once every month or so.

The tanks need to be filled every four to six weeks, with the size of the tank dependent on the area to be irrigated. A five-litre tank is suitable for an area of 1,000 square metres.

"We're trying to do more with less," says James Waters, whose company, Ez-Flo Middle East, distributes the system.

"Now there's a lot of strain on water supplies because we've got a shortage of water, so the UAE is looking at how to use less in a sustainable manner for landscaping and farming.

"Conventional irrigation systems would use 70 per cent more fertiliser and about 30 per cent more water," said Mr Waters.

On a large scale, fertigation can feed an area of up to 46,500 square metres - golf courses, for example, or large farms.

"Farmers and landscapers are now seeing that [fertigation] is increasing yield by about 30 per cent on farms because we're now feeding plants more efficiently," he said. "We're not reinventing the wheel, we're just making things a bit more streamlined."

A demonstration plot was set up on Yas Island last month and work was also carried out on 1,000 square metres of land at the Atlantis Hotel on the Palm Jumeirah in Dubai a few months ago.

"Instead of having 30 guys fertilise by hand in two days, you have one guy do the set-up in 15 minutes, once a month," said Mr Waters. "That trial cut back on water by 20 per cent."

Because UAE soil is so sandy, traditional irrigation methods can be wasteful, with much of the fertiliser draining out.

"Only 10 per cent of fertiliser is absorbed by the plant because of leaching," said Mr Waters. "It's going straight past the root zone, into the waterways and gets drained."

Nicholas Lodge, the managing partner of Clarity, an Abu Dhabi-based agriculture consultancy, agreed that the system would help, but said there were "other limiting factors" to farming in the region.

"The overall production from any agricultural system in this part of the world needs to take into account a range of factors," he said, "the availability and the efficiency of the fertiliser is one".

Poor quality soil meant farmers needed to focus on how water was applied, for how long it was available, and its ambient temperature.

"High temperatures can stop production for a great number of years here," he said, "because the temperature gets beyond the range in which plants can grow".

"Fertigation is an efficient way of delivering fertiliser but in some ways, the issues that face any agricultural system in the UAE are broader than just the method of giving fertiliser."