Agriculture accounted for 71% of water consumption in Abu Dhabi in 2012, including all groundwater and recycled wastewater consumption, according to figures from the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi. Due to its arid climate the UAE has the third-lowest per capita level of renewable fresh water resources in the world, according to World Bank data, and in Abu Dhabi farming is consuming groundwater at around 15 to 20 times its natural recharge rate, threatening to exhaust usable supplies within 10 to 20 years in some parts of the emirate (see Environment chapter). Furthermore, soil in the emirate also tends to be sandy, meaning that rainfall and water from irrigation is lost quickly.

Irrigating The Desert

Developing and maintaining efficient forms of irrigation is therefore crucial to both optimising productivity in the sector and to ensuring the environmental sustainability of local agriculture. To help achieve these objectives, the Abu Dhabi Farmers Services Centre (ADFSC) has been working to upgrade irrigation systems in the emirate; between its establishment in 2009 and early 2014 the centre distributed of Dh134m ($36.5m) worth of irrigation equipment to local farms, with an initial focus on the region of Al Gharbia in the west of the emirate. “In 2010 we began introducing new irrigation systems in Al Gharbia that are better systematised than previously,” said Nasser Al Junaibi, the ADFSC’s chief financial officer, speaking in October 2014. As of mid-2014, such systems had been distributed, via the centre’s Efficient Irrigation Fund, to around 7283 farms – or 90% of farms in Al Gharbia – offering potential water savings of up to 45%. The centre has also trained 6501 farm workers in how to use the new systems and ADFSC has established a number of demonstration farms in the region that display the pressure compensating bubblers.

Government entities are also seeking to further optimise the use of irrigation. The Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority (ADFCA) is conducting research into the potential benefits offered by smart irrigation systems, which are typically based around the use of sensors to detect whether or not plants are in need of water and, if so, to trigger its release. Between 2011 and 2013 the authority conducted a pilot study examining the use of smart irrigation – specifically the Dacom intelligent irrigation system – in the production of cucumbers and tomatoes, comparing it to three other benchmark irrigation regimes. The study found that the system significantly improved the efficiency of water use – the technology uses around 10% less water than estimation-based regimes – and yields. In the case of winter cucumbers, for example, agricultural plots using the technology yielded 48.53 kg of the crop per sq metre, compared to 37.46 kg for plots using a standard UN Food and Agriculture Organisation irrigation regime.

Research & Development

The authority is working on another irrigation research project based around the use of wireless sensors that send data via satellite to a computer to process and determine when to irrigate plants. The first phase of the project focuses on cucumbers, tomatoes, date palms and forage crops; under a planned second phase it will be expanded to cover most of the main crops grown in the emirate and tested at a commercial scale across major farms. Should the systems prove successful, the ADFCA intends to roll out the technology to farmers across the emirate.

Other initiatives under way to boost the sustainability of water consumption include efforts to increase the use of recycled water in agriculture, forestry and landscaping. These include an ADFSC programme to provide 120 farms with fourth-stage wastewater in the Al Wathba area. Al Junaibi described the project as a success and said it would soon be extending the project to farms in other parts of the emirate. “Using wastewater will reduce groundwater consumption and thereby make the farms more sustainable,” he told OBG. The centre has also been conducting an awareness campaign to encourage farmers not to over-water crops such as date palms and is working on a number of projects to encourage the use of hydroponics technology, which can dramatically cut water use (see analysis).