x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Abu Dhabi's effort to tame the land

Ajban is the largest of a number of farming tracts along the Abu Dhabi-Dubai road that emerged 10 years ago as a direct result of the Government's efforts to push back the edge of the desert.

Ajban is the largest of a number of farming tracts along the Abu Dhabi-Dubai road that emerged 10 years ago as a direct result of the Government's efforts to push back the edge of the desert. The emirate poured some of its wealth into creating thousands of farms fed by free water with a view to creating jobs for Emiratis, protecting the emirate's rural heritage and making the UAE less dependent on imported food.

At the beginning of the 1990s, Ajban was already growing a few thousand fruit trees and included a large fish farm. But the community's development accelerated at the end of the decade with the levelling of adjacent sand dunes and the construction of huge concrete water reservoirs to supply the farms. Two of the reservoirs were described in 2001 as "the biggest single concrete pour" in the country's history.

Emiratis were given individual plots, and in addition to free water the Government helped cover costs for electricity, seed and fertiliser. The country became self-sufficient in a number of crops, including cucumbers and tomatoes, and the government celebrated the creation of more than 12,000 farms along the coast and near Liwa as a victory of man against nature. "A glance at the vast cultivated areas in the Abu Dhabi emirate, which totalled 92,500 hectares last year, proves that efforts to overcome the harsh climate have been very successful," WAM, the official state news agency, reported in 1999.

Ajban was to be fed with desalinated water from the upcoming Taweelah power station and groundwater from local wells. But by 2002, the Government was investigating an unexpected increase in the soil's salinity, and by 2005 all local wells had been capped, forcing the municipality to supply all of the farms' needs with potable water. Government officials predicted on several occasions that the generous benefits to farmers across the emirate would be gradually rolled back.

A 2004 official study of the projected impacts of expanding the power station at Taweelah noted in an annex that "there is a Government strategy to reduce current subsidies over the coming years, by as much 30 per cent per year". By 2008, the Government's priorities had clearly shifted and commercial farming was seen as threatening the country's dwindling water resources and increasing the country's carbon footprint by expanding desalination needs.

The Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi (EAD) began exploring ways to reduce the economic appeal of agriculture. "While many farmers may cease to farm, the social consequences are better addressed by direct income support programmes that are transparent and do not have such unforeseen environmental consequences," the EAD wrote in its master plan last year. cstanton@thenational.ae