The Emirati researcher who's revolutionising forestry

Dr Wafa Al Yamani's work is taking the water out of growing trees in hot climates

Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

A major legacy of Sheikh Zayed's leadership is the greening of the desert.

In the 1960s, under the direction of the UAE's Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, a project began in Abu Dhabi emirate that would ultimately lead to the planting of about 19 million trees, most of them native species.

By [running this experiment] we know we could save around 35 per cent to 70 per cent of water in this new plan compared to the older practice
Dr Wafa Al Yamani, Emirati researcher

The scheme changed the face of large tracts of land, with forests now covering about 3.5 per cent of the emirate, according to the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD).

These efforts, however, continue to rely on irrigation, creating challenges for a country where water resources are limited.

Surviving a hyper-arid region

Through a tie-up with scientists in New Zealand, an Emirati researcher, Dr Wafa Al Yamani, has successfully introduced technology in the UAE that significantly reduces the amount of water given to each tree.

“These forests, they have importance for us, because they are the precious legacy of our Sheikh Zayed, as well as providing so many ecological services within the area,” she said.

“At the same time, because they are all planted, and they are in a hyper-arid region, in the desert … they need to be irrigated.”

Dr Al Yamani was an EAD employee when she began collaborating with researchers at Massey University in New Zealand.

Through these links, she went on to begin a PhD in the Emirates, funded by the UAE but under the guidance of academics at the university.

A key part of Dr Al Yamani’s doctoral studies was to use “heat pulse” technology in the UAE that the New Zealand scientists had developed.

Carried out at locations including Khub Al Dahs forest near Madinat Zayed in Al Dhafra Region, formerly known as the Western Region, this work involved Dr Al Yamani implanting trees with tiny needle-like sensors that record the temperature every 30 minutes.

Dr Wafa Al Yamani at her graduation with her father, Faisal Al Yamani, flanked by her PhD supervisor, Dr Brent Clothier, left, and Prof Peter Kemp, right, and two of Dr Clothier's grandchildren. Photo: Wafa Al Yamani

Focusing on native species

The focus was on native trees such as ghaf, sidr, samr and arak, because these account for well over 80 per cent of the forest area.

Adapting the heat pulse technology to the extreme climatic conditions of the UAE was not easy. It had not been used in the GCC before and many probes and sensors struggled in the country’s hot and saline conditions.

Readings from the temperature sensors help researchers to work out how much water a tree takes up from the ground, which in turn indicates the minimum amount it needs.

A host of factors ― including the size, age and type of tree, the soil type and the season ― influence requirements. Once a tree’s needs are calculated, about 20 per cent is added as a safety margin

“Running these experiments for around three to four years allows us to have a really good amount of data that we use later on in our modelling to cover all the forests in Abu Dhabi,” Dr Al Yamani said.

“By that we know we could save around 35 per cent to 70 per cent of water in this new plan compared to the older practice.”

This is of vital importance because irrigation depends on groundwater, reserves of which have been put under increasing pressure as the population of Abu Dhabi grows.

Green goals

EAD has ambitious targets to cut water use in forestry, which has reportedly consumed as much as 11 per cent of Abu Dhabi’s water budget.

Another key aspect of Dr Al Yamani’s research looked at using treated sewage effluent instead of groundwater for irrigation. Trees were found to thrive on the treated effluent.

During her doctoral studies, Dr Al Yamani travelled to New Zealand two or three times a year for exams and presentations, while her supervisor, Dr Brent Clothier, made trips in the opposite direction with his research team.

After successfully completing her research, which resulted in the publication of five main scientific papers, Dr Al Yamani was awarded her PhD at a ceremony in New Zealand about two and a half years ago.

She travelled with her father, Faisal Al Yamani, and took along a UAE flag to mark her achievement in becoming the first Emirati to secure a doctorate from Massey University.

“I had to make up a very huge UAE flag,” she said. “When I went, the New Zealanders or, as they call themselves, the Kiwis, they are really very friendly people. Our relationship with them is not only as academics or scientists or international experts, it’s more kind of a second family.

“At that ceremony, the UAE flag was raised in a ceremony for the first time since the establishment of Massey University, which is more than 80 years [old]. I felt so honoured and blessed to have that kind of moment through my graduation.”

Other Emirati postgraduate students have followed in Dr Al Yamani’s footsteps, with two already having completed PhDs at the institution.

Pastures new

Dr Al Yamani’s own career, however, has taken a new turn. She completed a diploma in international relations and diplomacy and plans to forge a career representing the UAE abroad.

“I like representing my country all over the world and I wish to address some of the sustainability and environmental issues internationally,” she said.

“From time to time I would also of course be happy to work in the field, but this is not the main thing I am looking for in the future.”

She retains a strong sense of gratitude to her New Zealand supervisors, and to the UAE and its senior figures, particularly Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, whose signing of a memorandum of understanding with New Zealand developed ties that ultimately resulted in her doctoral studies, and Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed, Ruler’s Representative in Al Dhafra Region and EAD chairman.

“I really, really appreciate what the government has done and encouraged me through all these years and how they recruited me since I was a student until now. I had so many experiences and so many unique opportunities that were given to me,” she said.

Updated: July 18, 2022, 9:55 AM