Abu Dhabi is focused on developing technologies to help boost its domestic production efficiency, while also rendering output more sustainable by limiting the use of water, fertilisers and pesticides. Agriculture accounts for the bulk of its water usage, the majority of which comes from ground-fed aquifers. However, with groundwater on track to be depleted within 50 years at current abstraction rates, innovation has become the order of the day for sector players.
Hydroponics was first introduced to Abu Dhabi’s farmers in 2011 by the Abu Dhabi Farmers’ Services Centre (ADFSC) and is used today by over 1000 farms, according to Pegasus Agriculture, a large owner-operator of hydroponic farming facilities in the MENA region. The technology involves an agricultural technique that grows plants using mineral-nutrient solutions in water without soil. There are two main types: solution culture and medium culture. The first uses water mixed with nutrients, while the second has a solid medium for the roots, such as sand, gravel or peat. Hydroponics, which can only be used in greenhouses, not open fields, has successfully cut down on water usage. The process is capable of increasing production per cu metre of water nearly 10-fold, according to Alaa Jomah, the technical services director at ADFSC.
In 2014 the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development, in collaboration with ADFSC, launched the Zaarie programme, under which 100 farms were loaned Dh1m ($272,000) to install hydroponic technology. As of May 2016 production at 47 of the farms had neared 100,000 kg of food a year, growing vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, aubergine and lettuce. Meanwhile, an initiative to replace diesel-powered groundwater irrigation pumps with solar-powered equivalents is also under way. According to the initiative’s engineers, the system could cut a farm’s operation costs by up to 60% per year.
Abu Dhabi has also ramped up efforts to boost wastewater efficiencies. In 2014 the emirate laid out its goal of reusing 100% of treated wastewater for irrigation purposes by 2018, up from 60% that year. Although an underdeveloped distribution system has historically presented the main challenge, plans are now in place to address this with the Strategic Tunnel Enhancement Programme from the Abu Dhabi Sewage Services Company. The project, to be finalised in 2017, will pump recycled wastewater back to metropolitan areas to be used for irrigation. In early 2016 Mohamed Dawoud, water resources manager at the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi, said plans to build a pipeline capable of delivering 140m cu metres of treated wastewater were in place, with the development set to double the amount of wastewater available to farms by 2020.
The effective use of wastewater has been central to the efforts of a team at a research facility formerly operated by Abu Dhabi’s Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, which recently combined with other institutions to form the Khalifa University of Science and Technology. Funded by the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC), the project is developing an innovative system that uses coastal seawater to raise fish and shrimp for local consumption. The nutrient-rich wastewater is then used to grow salt-tolerant halophyte plants. These plants, which thrive in arid desert conditions and do not require fresh water or arable land to grow, are then harvested for aviation biofuel production. The water is then diverted into a cultivated mangrove forest to remove the last traces of nutrients – which can facilitate harmful ocean algae blooms – before being discharged into the sea. The work has been hailed as an example of the innovative, cross-sector cooperation required to meet the emirate’s sustainability targets. More than 2000 commercial flights have used sustainable aviation biofuel blended with conventional jet fuel since renewable jet fuel was approved for commercial use in 2011. If Masdar’s technology proves viable on a smaller scale, the SBRC’s ambition is to scale up operations to a 200-ha demonstration site along Abu Dhabi’s western coast.
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