ABU DHABI // If the emirate decides to grow more food locally, it can tap into a "strategic reserve" almost three times the size of its current farmland, a study released yesterday said. The partial findings from the Abu Dhabi Soil Survey showed that more than 200,000 hectares out of the emirate's 5.7 million could support some form of agriculture.
The area was identified after a year-long soil assessment on 400,000 hectares conducted in Al Ain, Madinat Zayed, Gayathi and Sila from November 2007 to December 2008. Only 20 per cent was deemed highly to moderately suitable for agriculture; another 32 per cent was found to be marginally suitable. Currently, 77,000 hectares in the emirate are used in farming, producing crops such as date palms, vegetables and animal fodder.
"In total, 52 per cent of this [400,000 hectares] can be used for agriculture," said Dr Mahmoud Ali Abdelfattah, a scientist at the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi (EAD) and one of the members of the technical committee working on the survey. To determine farming potential the team examined factors including soil salinity and proximity of water. Highly saline soils are not suitable for agriculture. Nor are areas with little groundwater or where a thick, hard layer of soil creates a barrier to irrigation. The study found 26 per cent of land surveyed, mostly in Gayathi and Sila, was permanently unsuitable largely due to high amounts of salts and gypsum.
Majid al Mansouri, the EAD's secretary general, cautioned that while the study shows that, in theory, there is room for Abu Dhabi's agriculture sector to expand, the Government has no immediate plans to do so. "It is a strategic reserve should the Government decide to do this in future," he said. Agriculture accounts for about 80 per cent of water consumption in the UAE but is responsible for just four per cent of the gross domestic product.
EAD is researching technologies that can make farming more sustainable, including the use of protected agriculture and treated liquid sewage which has been processed to meet irrigation standards. The agency is negotiating with Wageningen University in the Netherlands to import know-how, with the goal of helping local farmers reap larger harvests using less land and water. Dr Abdelfattah said that as part of plans to pursue protected agriculture, researchers will start growing crops in three pilot greenhouses in Abu Dhabi. Discussions are also under way to open a Protected Agriculture Research Centre, with associated greenhouses, established as early as 2012.
The work to identify areas suitable for agriculture is only a part of a much larger project launched in 2006 to examine Abu Dhabi's soils. The project classified all soils in the emirate from more than 2,300 samples and created more than 20 thematic maps based on soil type, salinity and the availability of resources such as gypsum, gravel and sand. With a database already in place in Dubai, the Abu Dhabi Executive Council is funding work to survey soils of the Northern Emirates. The Dh13 million (US$3.5m) project is set to start in June this year and would take two years to complete, Dr Abdelfattah said.