x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Survival hope sprouts from plant research partnership

A project to save native plants from extinction in Liwa is taking root in Al Gharbia.

Abu Dhabi // A project to save native plants from extinction in Liwa is taking root in Al Gharbia. The research initiative struck yesterday, between UAE University and Western Region Municipality, will establish a "seed bank" and catalogue indigenous species and their medicinal properties. "This is the start of something to try to get back most of the desert plants that no longer exist because of limited rain," said Saif al Mazrouei, the municipality's Liwa division manager.

Documenting the vegetation was important to the area's cultural identity, as herbal remedies were derived from plants in the past, he added. "We hear from old generations that they used these plants for medicines," he said. "We want to work on finding out more, with the university's help." Mr al Mazrouei expected the study to eventually cover all of Al Gharbia. A related project, begun eight months ago, has already resulted in the growth of wild seedlings from a nursery in Liwa.

"We transferred some of them and planted them and it succeeded," Mr al Mazrouei said. "Now we can distribute those, but we want to work on the next step." Dr Ghaleb Alhadrami, the university's dean of food and agriculture, said the research would help to preserve desert plants. "They are concerned that some of them are disappearing really fast," he said. The research will proceed in stages, with the first phase assessing what plants to salvage and study further. For example, certain desert grass and flora species required less irrigation and could be planted more broadly to reduce water consumption, Dr Alhadrami said.

Although the university has documented plants all over the country over more than two decades, this study will focus specifically on Al Gharbia. A team from the agricultural college would start the work immediately, said Dr Abdullah al Khanbashi, the vice chancellor of the university. "There's also a discussion of documenting traditional uses of these plants for medicine or for food," Dr al Khanbashi said. "The nation went through major changes, and a long time ago we used to eat these things."

The project will also introduce new ideas to save water for irrigation. Dr Elke Neumann, an assistant professor with the college of food and agriculture at UAE University, explained one potential solution. "Most of the perennial plants have a special T-shaped root system, so we're going to develop an irrigation system that fits to this type of system and irrigate from further down," she said. The process would save surface water that would otherwise be lost to evaporation before reaching plants found in arid regions, such as Prosopis cineraria, commonly known in Arabic as the ghaf tree.

Mr al Mazrouei said the municipality viewed the partnership with UAE University as a way to continue the mission of Sheikh Zayed, the late President, to bring green to the desert. "We want to have a seed bank," he said. "We don't want to lose these trees again, so we'll have something reserved for the new generations." @Email:mkwong@thenational.ae