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Turning Desert Into Farmland

May 18, 2010

Many Gulf nations are hoping science can turn arid desert regions into arable land to boost food security and avoid relying on farming abroad, industry insiders told Reuters on Monday.

Gulf farming is tricky, with little water supply, high soil salinity and extreme heat. Many countries in the Gulf region do have the cash to implement expensive solutions that other cannot.

The Abu Dhabi Environment Agency has studied the soil to find areas with underground water systems and better soil quality, or soil that could be enhanced, said Faisal Taha, who led the project.

The survey found more than 495,000 acres of land that could be used for agriculture if the proper investments were made, Taha told Reuters at an industry conference in Abu Dhabi.

“We are talking about tens of millions of dirhams in investments … but it’s worth it because with this land vegetable and fodder production could be increased by up to 70 percent,” said Taha.

Abu Dhabi aims to fund a 130 million dirham — (35 million US dollars) — study that would take two years to identify other potential agricultural areas in the UAE’s northern emirates.

“This land will not be able to guarantee 100 percent food security for the UAE, but the strategy comes at a right time when many of the international agencies are criticizing rich countries for buying land in nations that can’t feed themselves and exporting their crops,” said Taha.

Gulf states that have relied mainly on food imports over the past year, are working to buy and lease farmland in developing nations to help secure food supplies. Foreign land acquisitions have provoked opposition from many farmers in developing nations.

Rich countries that buy up land throughout developing nations have worried the United Nations that such actions could be compromising farmers’ rights.

Kuwait and Qatar have been trying to increase domestic agricultural supply in their regions through the use of selected types of fungus that enhance the growth of plant roots in arid regions, said Rajendra Pachauri, director general of the New Delhi-based Energy and Resources Institute.

“By mixing the soil with these microbes, or what we call mycorrhiza, the roots of a plant can absorb nutrients from the soil that otherwise it would not be able to do given the climate and soil conditions in the Gulf,” Pachauri told Reuters. 

In a matter of 18 months, the institute managed to convert 13,000 sq. ft. of salinity-rich wasteland in Qatar’s southern Dukhan area into a productive habitat where vegetables and grains could now grow, he said.

“We have similar projects going on in Kuwait, India, Oman and the UAE,” Pachauri added. “I believe that there is nothing better than using one’s own land to secure food supplies, it’s just much more secure.”

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