Pilot water scheme on farms to spread

Two thirds of farms in an irrigation programme have taken up its recommendations, and the Farmers' Services Centre wants the rest to follow them.

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ABU DHABI // A pilot scheme to cut water use on farms is to be expanded a year after it was launched.

Under the scheme run by the Farmers' Services Centre, the government body tasked with modernising the emirate's farms, 500 properties in Al Gharbia have installed new irrigation systems.

And two thirds of those farmers are following a series of recommendations intended to cut water use. Now the centre is hoping to persuade the rest.

"The pilot showed what was possible on a small scale," said Frederick Nels, the FSC's irrigation specialist.

"And now we're in the process of supplying new irrigation equipment such as filters, bubblers and pressure-compensating drip systems to every single farm in the Western Region."

So far, about 1,500 farms have received new equipment that helps them produce more consistent crops. Without it, a field can be highly variable.

"The first plant in a row will get the most water and be chest high", while those further down receive less and are smaller, said Mr Nels. "It keeps everything uniform and makes for a more marketable crop."

There are also new filtration devices that prevent salt and other impurities from clogging sprinklers, and a system to automatically monitor how long plants are watered.

Pressure-compensating sprinklers ensure water is evenly distributed and a water-storage system helps to reduce the amount of fertiliser that gets into the groundwater.

The venture is part of many operated by Abu Dhabi to try to preserve water resources.

Previously, farmers would dig wells to get water.

"Fresh water aquifers have been greatly depleted in recent decades and this has caused a significant impact on the environment and agriculture," said Mr Nels.

The FSC and the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority are hoping to cut agricultural water use 40 per cent by 2013.

"The more water we can save, the better the chances of sustaining healthy agriculture," said Mr Nels.

Date farmers have been asked to water their trees for only 30 minutes a day, rather than the three and half hours that was typical.

That cuts the amount of water used from about 2,100 litres a day to 300 litres, with no effect on the health of the palms.

And with 33 million of the trees in Abu Dhabi, that makes a big difference.

"This is 86 per cent less water without any negative impact on productivity," said Mr Nels.

Eight crop demonstration sites were opened on farms last year and 50 irrigation systems were upgraded.

The centre has another 10 cropping irrigation demonstrations planned and three irrigation demonstration sites set to open by the end of the month.

"Saving water is not only possible, it makes sound sense economically because there are irrigation levels that optimise farm productivity while saving water," said Mr Nels.

The onus is now on farmers. Although many have been using water more carefully in the past year, educating them remains a huge task.

"They don't always adopt our recommendations immediately," said Mr Nels.

"So we're hoping to educate and convince many more through this year's programmes and demonstrations but we can't force things to happen with laws."

In 2009, the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi warned the emirate's water supplies could be exhausted in 20 to 40 years, and called for cuts in subsidies on thirsty crops.

"Unless the use of water is regulated and minimised, it is impossible for the emirate to develop sustainable agriculture," said Mohammed Jalal Al Reyaysa, the authority's communications director.

"The new system is tailored to the specific circumstances in which our farmers operate and is sure to help [them] not only reduce the consumption of water, but also improve farming practices and the produce."

Mr Nels added: "It's imperative that the country use less water to ensure an agricultural future. This is obviously a very long-term process."