x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Food security and water use are linked

For the UAE, sound food-security policy will always depend on factors beyond optimum water use.

A rainy week may seem like the wrong time to worry about efficient use of water, but every resident of the UAE knows that wet weather is the exception in this dry country. Even in the rain, water security is always a vital issue.

Fortunately, water-saving techniques and technologies have been developed at an increasing pace in recent years, in response to the growing urgency of the issue. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation says the UAE's renewable water resources have dwindled by 42 per cent over the last 15 years.

As The National reported yesterday, real progress is being made in making farming more water-efficient. Every farm in the Western Region of Abu Dhabi is receiving new irrigation equipment, and farm workers are being trained to use it. Meanwhile, as another story reported yesterday, even more efficient high-tech solutions are being developed: Masdar Institute researchers are working on a super-absorbent material that could reduce water use per kilo of farm produce still further.

These are welcome developments, but they address just part of the country's food problem. The UAE imports fully 85 per cent of the food it consumes, and agriculture here will always be at a disadvantage compared with countries that have more rainfall, more temperate climates and more fertile soil.

For the UAE, then, sound food-security policy will always depend on factors beyond optimum water use. And sound water policy can be framed only by asking some hard questions about agriculture. We must choose our domestic crops, seed varieties and livestock prudently, measuring the cost and benefit of each drop of water without any preconceptions about the inherent desirability of a large farm sector.

On the food security side, our reliance on imports alarms many people, who see risks of sudden shortages in the event of supply disruptions. Some countries have become enthusiastic in recent years about buying farmland abroad; this may be commercially sound under normal conditions but in time of serious worldwide shortage, such farms could always be nationalised, or their produce barred from export.

A more robust solution to the problem begins with a stockpile of essential foods but can be centred on prudent diversification among many foreign suppliers. We must not get all our eggs from one basket.