Major efforts are being made to ensure the UAE’s water reserves are conserved, officials said, after an international study highlighted concerns over the depletion of the country’s underground supplies.
The 2017 Food Sustainability Index (FSI) ranked the Emirates at the bottom of 34 countries forsustainable agriculture, with the high use of dwindling resources in aquifers a key factor.
The UAE was also ranked 34th for food loss and waste, although The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), which published the FSI, said the figures may not be reliable.
In terms of nutritional challenges, the UAE was ranked 12th, achieving the highest status of Arab countries, with fewer people lacking essential nutrients.
Released through the Barilla Centre for Food and Nutrition, the FSI analysed 34 countries, accounting for two-thirds of the world’s population and 85 per cent of its GDP.
Among all three categories, the UAE was ranked 34th, while the top spot was taken by France, followed by Japan and Germany.
The nations surveyed included Ethiopia, South Korea, Sweden and the United States, and from the Arab world, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.
Martin Koehring, EIU managing editor, said the UAE stood out as a high-income country with a low level of agricultural sustainability. Most high-income nations surveyed were near the top of the sustainable agriculture table, although their climates were different and they did not face severe water scarcity.
“In terms of sustainable agriculture, the UAE has problems. There’s a lack of rainfall, so there's a heavy reliance on aquifers and expensive desalination, and a high level of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture in the UAE,” said Mr Koehring.
He suggested there could be greater efforts to educate farmers about water conservation.
In a statement, the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD) said the UAE, through the UAE Vision 2021, which identifies development priorities, highlights water scarcity as a key performance indicator for sustainability.
EAD said the Abu Dhabi emirate faced “many challenges” regarding water resources, including a scarcity of fresh water. Daily domestic consumption, at 590 litres per capita, is “one of the highest in the world”.
“EAD, along with key stakeholders, is taking extraordinary measures to address the groundwater challenge, while the Abu Dhabi Government is aware of the importance of groundwater resources as part of the emirate’s natural heritage.”
EAD said there were more than 1,300 groundwater monitoring stations in the emirate and its well inventory project will enable it to measure all wells for salinity, water levels, pollution and other variables.
Solar-powered desalination plants are producing fresh water from saline groundwater, expanding supplies for crops. Also, a water tariff introduced two years ago encourages more careful desalinated water usage.
Meanwhile, a 2016 law strengthens the rules around illegal groundwater use and requires farms to have meters.
“The implementation of this law will reduce groundwater use and slow down the depletion of our aquifers, helping to support the longer-term future of the agricultural sector, forests that provide benefits and natural ecosystems,” said EAD.
“This is a very important step; however, to truly achieve sustainable use of groundwater requires a complete rethink of how we plan for and allocate all types of groundwater in an integrated way.”
Jeffrey Culpepper, chairman of AgriSecura, an agriculture investment firm in Dubai, said the country's lack of sustainability "has been a problem for a long time and we've been discussing it for a long time". He said there were "some incredibly smart people in government" who understood the issue, but introducing wholesale reforms was difficult.
The key issue he cited was water subsidies, which discouraged water conservation by farmers. "The number they're convincing to use low water [farming] techniques is not keeping pace," said Mr Culpepper.
One solution he suggested would be to scrap subsidies several years on. Only such a "draconian government rule" would, he said, solve the issue, although a shake-up wouldconfront long-held agricultural traditions.
EAD said the 2016 law would help it to gain more control over water usage by farmers, allowing it to issue groundwater permits to farms and forests specifying how much water could be removed and what it could be used for. A “crop calculator” indicates how much can be used, with a similar measure for forest trees being developed.
In high-demand areas, farmers will have to install meters while the new law allows EAD to permit the installation of on-farm desalination plants.
The agency said other organisations, such as Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority (ADFCA) and Abu Dhabi Farmers’ Services Centre (ADFSC) were taking measures such as promoting bio-saline agriculture (in which salt water is used to irrigate crops) and hydroponics (where sand or gravel may be used instead of soil, cutting water usage) instead of open-field agriculture.