Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large
The director of an agricultural company that is currently irrigating a plot of land on Yas Island with sea water, a move that may help the UAE drastically cut down water usage.
The director of an agricultural company that is currently irrigating a plot of land on Yas Island with sea water, a move that may help the UAE drastically cut down water usage.

Sea water irrigation could be key to cutting down UAE's water usage

An agricultural company has experimenting with irrigating landscaping areas with sea water instead of fresh water, a move that could drastically cut down UAE's water usage.

ABU DHABI // Under the surface of a plot of land on Yas Island, an experiment is under way that could drastically reduce the UAE's water use.

Irrigation accounts for about 80 per cent of the water used by the UAE, with traditional irrigation - such as drip or spray systems - using 12 to 15 litres of water a day per square metre of land.

But an agricultural company says it can reduce that to zero by getting rid of freshwater irrigation for landscaping and using sea water instead.

"There's a lot of landscaping on the UAE's coastal areas," said Bart Rehbein, the managing director of Epic Green Solutions. "If you can do a significant amount of irrigation with sea water then you have an unlimited supply."

The system involves subsurface irrigation. An area of 120 square metres has been excavated 60cm deep, and lined on its base and sides with rubber. Pipes are placed on top of the liners and water flows into the system through the pipes and out of holes along their base before reaching the plants' roots.

"Other places will irrigate on the surface which makes it difficult because the water evaporates," said Mr Rehbein. "Underneath, it doesn't."

But the sea water is key to ensuring a dramatic cut in water use as experts predict the groundwater to deplete in 55 years.

"There are no water tanks nor meters in this system because it's sea water so we don't care how much we use," said Mr Rehbein. "There's a solar panel to pump the water from the sea, then there's a drain line which throws the water back in the sea, so no salt builds up."

And the closed system also means the soil around does not get contaminated by salt.

"If you spray the soil with salt, it makes the ground so sterile that you can't grow anything in it," said Mr Rehbein. "We contain that salt within the cell so there's no pollution." Every six months, the accumulated salt is flushed out.

The trials started last January using sesuvium and atriplex plants, two salt-tolerant species. "They're used in seaside areas for landscaping and they're used a lot in this area," said Mr Rehbein. "We started using freshwater and after two months we managed to completely switch to sea water."

But the plants struggled with the summer heat. "There was a lot of stress to put them under the heat but now I see things are getting back to normal and they're starting to get greener," said Mr Rehbein.

Some doubts remain about whether seawater irrigation can work in the long term. "To save water, it's a good idea," said Hoda Jaffal, an agricultural engineer at Al Yousuf Agricultural and Landscaping in Dubai. "But there are much better ways like products that can be used with the soil that are able to retain water for a long time so you don't have to irrigate every day."

She said companies should treat the water before using it for irrigation to avoid harming the plants. "Even if the plant is salt tolerant, it's harmful in the long run because when the amount of salt is too high or too low, the plant cannot absorb the nutrients it needs to grow and build new tissues," she said. "Ultimately, the plant will die."

But Epic Green is convinced of the concept. Eventually, it hopes to produce biofuels from the plants.

"We're waiting for cooler weather to plant biofuel type plants," said Mr Rehbein. "We will then watch them over the course of winter."

The project echoes work at the Masdar Institute for Science and Technology, where scientists are hoping to acquire land in Abu Dhabi to produce sustainable jet fuel from salt-tolerant plants.


Back to the top

More articles

Editor's Picks

 The Retreat at the Westin Abu Dhabi Golf Resort & Spa will screen IPL games on request. Lee Hoagland / The National

Top five places to catch an IPL game in the UAE

Enjoy all the 20/20 cricket action at a sports lounge near you – whether in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain or Dubai

This April 17 don’t take our word, we’ll take yours

Have a catchy caption for our picture above? Share it with us.

 Fans braved long queues and early morning hassles to buy IPL tickets in person rather than buy them online, such has been the enthusiasm for the tournament. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National

Love it, hate it but IPL is too big to be ignored

The tournament steamrolls its way through life perennially from the throes of extinction to the prospect of expansion; alive one moment through its on-field spectacle, dying the next because of another off-field wrangle.

 An employee plays the game Flappy Bird at a smartphone store in Hanoi. Hoang Dinh Nam / AFP

How Flappy Bird made app developer $50,000 a day

The game propelled the unknown Vietnamese developer Dong Nguyen to rock-star status.

 Iranian President Hassan Rouhani greets supporters after his arrival in Zahedan, the regional capital of Sistan and Baluchestan province on Tuesday, April 15, 2014. During Mr Rouhani's two-day visit, he will tour several other cities and hold meetings with local scholars and entrepreneurs. Maryam Rahmanian for The National

On the road with Hassan Rouhani

Iran's president is touring some of Iran's most underdeveloped provinces. Foreign correspondent Yeganeh Salehi is traveling with him.

 A view of a defaced portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during an anti-North Korean rally on the 102nd birthday of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung in central Seoul. Kim Hong-Ji / Reuters

Best photography from around the world today

The National View's photo editors pick the best images of the day from around the world.


To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National