Agriculture in the UAE Lying in the heart of the world’s arid zone, the UAE has little rainfall and one would expect it to be a barren place. Barren places there certainly are, but the process of desertification has very largely been arrested in the country. It is now possible to see forests, fields of grass and wheat where once there were only desert sands and winds. The UAE has a long tradition of agriculture in its oases where crops have been grown for 5000 years.
Underground water was chandelled to palm groves and small fields and the technique is still used today. Since the formation of the UAE in 1971, this small scale traditional farming has been complemented by investment that has seen thousands of hectares being cultivated. In the past 25 years, the country’s population has increased ten-fold and agricultural production has kept pace with this growth. The country is self-sufficient in salad crops and poultry for much of the year and even exports crops to markets in Europe.
Most of the UAE’s agricultural production comes from four areas: from in and around Al Ain, from a narrow but fertile strip along the east coast, from the oasis of Dhaid east of Sharjah and from the gravel plains in Ras al Khaimah. According to figures from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, agricultural production stands at over Dh 2 billion per year. An average crop season yields over 600,000 tons of crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers, aubergines, lettuce, cabbage and animal feed.
Studies have shown that much of the country’s soil can be cultivated provided there is water and as a result, there has been an extensive programme to drill water wells. The government will prepare land for local farmers which they are then given free along with seeds, machinery and advice on pest control. There is also government-funded research on different crops to see how they adapt to the local climate.
In an attempt to conserve and use as much water as possible in as many ways as possible, the government has embarked on a three-part programme designed to make the most advantageous use of this scarce resource. First, farmers are given advice on how to reduce their consumption of water, mainly through trickle irrigation. Desalinated water as well as recycled and purified sewage effluent is used. Second, with the help of the United States Geological Survey, the government is searching for ew aquifers and monitoring current rates of extraction. Third and last, to prevent the waste of valuable rainwater, retention dams have been constructed in many areas. These store the water until it can be used for irrigation. Tens of millions of gallons of rainwater are being retained by the dams already built throughout the Emirates. In the long run, of course, it is realized that desalinated water will provide the bulk of agricultural water. There is more to agriculture than simply growing crops.
One area that has seen dramatic growth is the keeping of poultry for meat and eggs. The same is true of dairy products. Herds of imported cattle have adapted to the climate and are now producing milk, cheese and yogurt for the local market. The presence of trees and gardens in the UAE is always noticed and commented upon by visitors. Over 10 million trees have been planted plus more than 18 million palm trees. In all the cities and towns of the UAE, there have been beautification campaigns with the creation of parks and gardens for the local people.
Any householder, even those in flats, can get free plants from the Municipality under a programme that distributes thousands of plants annually. Besides the greening of the cities and towns there has also been a massive programme in the desert and it is here that most of the trees have been planted. Flying over the desert, one now sees great patches of green where formerly there was only sand. All kinds of arid region plants, both local and imported, have been planted and as they grow to maturity, their roots reach down to the natural water supply.
When this happens, they will be able to survive with little care and attention. The face of the land and the environment too have been changed. Wildlife flourishes as do native plants and animals. The UAE was never purely and simply a desert. Today it has become a place where greenery can be seen in both urban and rural areas. Twenty years of dedicated commitment have made the point that the process of desertification is reversible. And given time and money, that is exactly what has happened and is continuing to happen.