We can't use water for farming in the UAE at this rate forever

Farmers in the UAE must be encouraged to adopt sustainable farming practices.

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At the Agribusiness Outlook Forum held in Dubai this week, experts suggested that agriculture in the UAE makes no sense.

They were mistaken. Thousands of people in the country depend on farming for their livelihood. And while the UAE will probably never fully feed itself, some crop and livestock production is traditional, natural and strategically useful.

But the "makes no sense" comment is correct in a way. Some farming practices and crop decisions, ones that rely too heavily on the lavish use of water, clearly do not make sense.

As The National reported yesterday, the UAE has drained 42 per cent of its renewable water resources between 1992 and 2007, dropping from 72,000 litres per person per year to 42,000. And in Abu Dhabi alone, the demand for water is expected to increase by 30 per cent before 2030.

A common alternative to well water - desalinated water - is also impractical for irrigation, because it is so costly. The salt waste from desalination is pumped back into the Gulf, adding to its salinity. And there is also another nasty by-product: carbon emissions.

This situation demands urgent attention. But since fresh water is generally accessible in wells, farmers have little incentive to conserve.

Educating them about the need for conservation, while useful, will not be enough in itself. What is also called for is a vigorous effort to transform agriculture in the UAE by encouraging farmers to adopt "smart farming" practices that are sustainable - techniques and crops that are economically viable and ecologically sound.

To be sure, new techniques and infrastructure will be expensive, but the alternative, continued rapid depletion of groundwater, will prove far more costly and damaging.

Agricultural sustainability can be increased by relying more on "grey water" and by selecting crops that do well with little water and by more efficient methods such as hydroponics, drip irrigation - where every drop of water reaches its intended target, the roots of a plant - and other modern-day equivalents of the falaj system that provided reliable irrigation in this region for many centuries.

Urban water use, too could and should be made more efficient. For one thing, a speedy transformation to grey water for irrigating city boulevards and parks should be encouraged.