How native plants can save millions of gallons of water in the UAE

Desert plants are more suited to UAE gardens and parks, but are often overlooked in favour of exotic varieties that require large amounts of water.

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DUBAI // Cultivating indigenous desert plants and educating the public about them can help save millions of gallons of water, a Dubai-based scientist has said.

Perfectly adapted to the harsh desert climate, local plants offer cheap and water-efficient alternatives to the exotic ornamental greenery that still dominate public gardens, said Dr Nanduri Rao, plant genetic resources scientist at the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA).

However, they suffer from a poor image with people unaware of their variety and beauty.

In addition, there is still a lack of knowledge on how to cultivate them, he said.

"Most of these plants are in the wild, so if you introduce them on a large scale, they may not look good," said Dr Rao, who was addressing an audience of architects, landscape designers and students at a seminar at the Canadian University of Dubai yesterday.

"We need to find new ways of managing them or treating them in a garden or landscape," he said.

Exotic ornamental plants predominate in public gardens, especially in the Northern Emirates where turf and colourful flower displays are the order of the day at most major city interchanges and in public parks.

However, these plants consume large amounts of water.

Dr Mohamed Al Mulla, director of the water resources department in the Ministry of Environment and Water, said that in 2008 the total water needs were estimated at 4.5 billion cubic metres per year. Of this amount, 11 per cent was used to irrigate landscaping. It is projected the country's total water needs will double by 2030.

"Designers need to consider these facts when doing their work," said Dr Al Mulla.

Since 2009, ICBA had collected seeds from local plants that have potential for use in agriculture or landscaping projects. The centre had 227 samples of 65 species, said Dr Rao.

Many of the native species that had potential for landscaping normally grow in the mountainous areas. This is the case with Moringa peregrina - a tree with white-pink flowers, or the Gladiolus italicus - a perennial grass with vibrant pink flowers.

Some local plants, mostly trees such as the ghaf or sidr, are already used in landscaping in the country with good results.

While a large exotic tree needs about 300 litres of water a day, the sidr or Ziziphus spina-christi requires only 60 to 80 litres a day, Dr Rao said.

Local trees are used successfully in Abu Dhabi where Dr Rao estimated they constitute about 35 per cent of landscaping. Abu Dhabi is also making efforts to reduce the amount of green grass used in landscaping.

In Dubai, developer Nakheel, opened a park with more than 60 species of indigenous trees and plants on The Palm Jumeirah. Located behind the Golden Mile residential development and running underneath the track for the Palm Jumeirah Monorail, Ittihad Park is 102,193 square metres large and will serve as inspiration for other landscaping projects.

Capable of withstanding heat and thriving on very little water, native plants will also be cheaper to maintain in landscapes, said Dr Rao. In Al Ain alone, municipal gardens cost Dh130 million a year, according to ICBA's research.