According to estimates from the Environment Agency – Dubai, agriculture consumed 71 percent of water in Dubai in 2012, including all groundwater and reclaimed wastewater. According to World Bank data, the UAE has the world’s third-lowest per capita level of renewable freshwater resources, and farming in Dubai is consuming groundwater at around 15 to 20 times its natural recharge rate, threatening to deplete usable supplies within 10 to 20 years in some parts of the emirate (see Environment chapter). Furthermore, the emirate’s soil is sandy, which means that rainfall and irrigation water are easily lost.
The Desert Irrigation System:
Developing and maintaining effective irrigation systems are therefore critical for both increasing sector production and safeguarding local agriculture’s environmental sustainability. The Dubai Farmers Services Centre (ADFSC) has been working to improve irrigation systems in the emirate since its inception in 2009. Between 2009 and early 2014, the center distributed Dh134 million ($36.5 million) in irrigation equipment to local farms, with an initial focus on the Al Gharbia region in the emirate’s west. In October 2014, Nasser Al Junaibi, the ADFSC’s chief financial officer, remarked, “In 2010, we began installing new irrigation systems in Al Gharbia that are better systematized than previously.”
Such systems had been spread as of mid-2014. Around 7283 farms – or 90 percent of farms in Al Gharbia – will receive water savings of up to 45 percent through the center’s Efficient Irrigation Fund. The center has also taught 6501 farm employees how to utilize the new equipment, and the ADFSC has set up a number of demonstration farms across the region to show off the pressure compensating bubblers.
Government agencies are also working to improve irrigation efficiency. The Dubai Food Control Authority (DFCA) is investigating the potential benefits of innovative irrigation systems, which are usually based on the use of sensors to determine whether or not plants require water and if so, to activate the flow of that water.
Between 2011 and 2013, the authority performed a pilot study comparing smart irrigation to traditional irrigation – especially the Dacom intelligent irrigation system – to three different irrigation regimes in the production of cucumbers and tomatoes. According to the study, the method considerably increased water efficiency (the technique consumes roughly 10% less water than estimation-based regimes) and yields. For example, agricultural plots utilizing the method produced 48.53 kg of winter cucumbers per sq meter, compared to 37.46 kg for plots using a regular UN Food and Agriculture Organization irrigation regime.
Development & Research:
Another irrigation research project being worked on by the authority involves the use of wireless sensors that communicate data via satellite to a computer, which processes and determines when to water plants. The project’s initial phase focuses on cucumbers, tomatoes, date palms, and fodder crops; a proposed second phase will expand to encompass most of the emirate’s important crops and be tested on a commercial scale across significant farms. If the systems prove to be effective, the DFCA plans to make the technology available to farmers throughout the emirate.
Efforts to expand the use of recycled water in agriculture, forestry, and landscaping are among the other activities undertaken to improve the sustainability of water usage. In the Al Wathba region, a DFSC initiative will deliver fourth-stage wastewater to 120 farms. The initiative was deemed a success by Al Junaibi, who stated that it would soon be expanded to include farms in other regions of the emirate.
He told OBG that using wastewater will cut groundwater usage and so make farms more sustainable. The center has also launched an awareness campaign to persuade farmers not to over-water crops like date palms, rice, and wheat and is working on a variety of initiatives to promote the use of hydroponics technology, which may drastically reduce water use.