x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Thousands of abandoned farms across UAE to be brought back to life

The International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture in Dubai plans to rehabilitate the farms, on which the soil has been rendered all but infertile by salty ground water.

A gardener at the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture in Dubai works in a test plot of grasses. The centre is looking to revive old farms with salt-resistant crops and more water-efficient methods. Charles Crowell / The National
A gardener at the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture in Dubai works in a test plot of grasses. The centre is looking to revive old farms with salt-resistant crops and more water-efficient methods. Charles Crowell / The National

DUBAI // Thousands of abandoned farms across the nation are to be brought back to life.

The International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture in Dubai plans to rehabilitate the farms, on which the soil has been rendered all but infertile by salty ground water.

"There are around 24,000 farms in Abu Dhabi and the Western Region," said Dr Shoaib Ismail, a saline crop expert at the centre.

"Of those, about 8,000 are abandoned or near abandonment just in the Western Region and in Al Ain. In the Northern Emirates, there are a bit less."

Dr Ismail was speaking at a tour by the Ministry of Environment and Water of the centre's soil lab and research fields.

Concern has been growing about the amount and quality of ground water. As the water table falls, the remains have become more salty, with devastating effects on agriculture.

"According to the predictions this is getting worse," said Dr Ismail. "Many farms have gone from productive to unproductive."

If farms are not cultivated for a long time they are abandoned. Now the centre wants to grow crops that are more tolerant of salty conditions, while being environmentally and economically sound.

"We are trying to make farms as productive as possible and reclaim the farms to grow vegetables," he said. "It's about testing alternative production systems and how we can substitute those systems that use a lot of water and high-quality water."

Reclaimed farms will initially grow shrubs and grass for animal feed.

"We're emphasising animal feed now but eventually, if you start cultivating then you can bring vegetables and that's our second step in two to three years," Dr Ismail said.

"There are many [crops] that have a market, like quinoa, which is being considered as a new crop for 2013."

The centre has had considerable success with trials of quinoa, a high-protein grain, and has started similar work in Qatar.

"Why are we growing wheat, which consumes a lot of water, instead of going through other alternative vegetables that can be easily grown?" he asked.

The systems being installed by the centre use up to a quarter less water than traditional methods.

"We want to show farmers if they use less water they can still get productive yield, and that's the future of agriculture here."

Three farms have been turned around and will be demonstration properties for the new crops. But restoring all of the abandoned farms will take years and much funding.

"It's very hard to restore them to their original state," said Dr Khalil Ammar, a hydrogeology scientist at the centre. "Most of these farms have very saline soil so they could use hydroponics. If the water is poor but the soil is good, the best option is to look for desalination."

Plans for the centre include on-farm feeding trials with livestock to reduce transport and logistics cost.

And the Ministry of Environment and Water believes the initiative could help the environment.

"Adapting the land should be promoted in the region," said Dr Rashid bin Fahad, Minister of Environment and Water. "This can do a lot for us and it will provide an efficient outcome. I look forward to seeing [results] of the programmes."

cmalek@thenational.ae