Bulletin 16 - March 1982: Management, Conservation and Development of Agricultural Resources in the United Arab Emirates

Management, Conservation and Development of Agricultural Resources in the United Arab Emirates

by Mohamed I.R. Khan


Situation, area and population

The United Arab Emirates, a federation of seven Emirates, which came into being in December, 1971, lies roughly between 22°40’ to 26°10'N latitudes and 51°35’ to 56°25’E longitudes. The Arabian Gulf lies to the northwest and the Gulf of Oman stretches along the east coast of the Emirates. The land surface of the mainland excluding the islands is about 77,700 square kilometers as given in the table below:

Table 1

Area of the United Arab Emirates

S. No. Emirate Area in square miles Area in square kilometers
1 Abu Dhabi 26 000 67 340
2 Dubai 1 500 3 885
3 Sharjah 1 000 2 590
4 Ras al Khaimah 650 1 683.5
5 Fujairah 450 1 165.5
6 Umm al Quwain 300 777
7 Ajman 100 259
Total   30 000 77 700

The population of the Emirates including a large population of the expatriates is estimated to be a little over one million persons at present.


The overall climate of the Emirates may be described a subtropical, warm and arid. Air temperatures range between 35° to 50° from May to October during the middle of the day and between 20° to 35° at mid-day during the winter months. In the interior of the desert, the highest temperatures on the ground during summer rise to 70°C and the lowest may fall below 0°C during winter months. The average annual rainfall of the Emirates which falls mostly during winter months is less than 100 mm. Some monsoon showers are also received during summer months on the east coast and in the mountain belt that form the watershed between the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. The rainfall, however, is very erratic and varies extremely both from year to year and place to place. Some moisture also condenses in the form of fog and dew, especially in the coastal belts. Strong winds and sand storms area also of common occurrence throughout the Emirates. They are especially more frequent and severe during summer months. Sand dunes are a dominant feature of the landscape over most of the Emirates.


The soils are generally coarse, sandy and undeveloped. They are deficient in organic matter, nitrogen, available phosphorus and trace elements such as zinc, iron and manganese. Non-calcareous soils may also be deficient in potassium. Soils in the ‘Sabkha’ coastal belt and low-lying areas and depressions in the interior of the desert are highly saline.

Only irrigated agriculture possible

Most of the Emirates is an extremely arid area so that permanent and sustained agriculture is not possible without artificial irrigation. Some protection against high winds and high summer temperatures is also necessary in most places. Dry and drought years are quite common. Next to Empty Quarter of the Arabian Peninsula, the United Arab Emirates is perhaps the most difficult area for practicing sustained agriculture successfully.

Evidence of ancient agriculture

It would be of interest to mention here that recent archaeological evidence by a French mission at Hili near Al Ain has provided evidence that agriculture was being practiced in the Buraimi oasis about 3000 BC. Seeds and stalks of wheat, barley, oats and sorghum, stones of dates and seeds of melon have been identified in material collected. However, evidence with regard to the use and methods of artificial irrigation employed to raise these crops in the ancient time is still to be discovered.

Critical Areas of Resource Pressure and Assessment of Resource Losses

1. Destruction and degradation of natural vegetation and wildlife

There is no doubt that naturally occurring arid zone vegetation both woody and non-woody found in the Emirates has either been completely destroyed from certain areas, or it has not been suitably managed and has degraded considerably over most areas. Along with the natural vegetation, wildlife that takes refuge in it has also suffered in the past. A brief account of the major vegetation types of the Emirates and wildlife that have suffered to varying extents is given below:

(a) Mangrove forest: It occupies an area of about 2 930 hectares as estimated by a UNDP mission in 1978. The dominant species of this forest, ‘Quoram” (Avicennia marina), has been severely over-cut primarily as fodder for camels and livestock. Good stands of this type are to be seen only in a few sheltered and protected localities now.

(b) ‘Haad’ (Cornulaca spp) range type: It is found beyond the ‘Sabkha’ salty flats on undulating sandy lands or on low sand dune terrain in the interior. The dominant browse species in this type are Cornulaca spp. The type has been over-browsed and heavily grazed in the past. No reliable and precise statistics of the extent of this range type are available at present.

(c) ‘Ghada’ (Haloxylon persicum) woody type: It also occurs adjoining the ‘Sabkha’ salty flats on medium sized gray sand dunes and has been over cut and excessively browsed. The area under this type and its distribution also needs to be precisely determined and mapped.

(d) ‘Rims’ (Hammada elegans) range lands: These are the premier rangelands of the UAE and occupy sizeable areas. They have also been over browsed and over used in the past. Precise position with regard to their distribution and area requires to be surveyed, mapped and determined.

(e) ‘Arta’ (Calligonum comosum) woody type: It occurs to a considerable extent in high red sand dune country and has been excessively browsed and cut in the past. Its precise area, distribution and condition need to be surveyed, demarcated and determined.

(f) ‘Ghaf’ (Prosopis spicigera) and ‘Samar’ (Acacia tortilis) forest: The most important forest type of the Emirates, occurring mostly in the northern Emirates and Eastern region of Abu Dhabi in areas with better soil and rainfall conditions, has been over-exploited and not properly managed in the past. A good part of it has already been destroyed. Surviving areas need to be demarcated, protected and properly managed on a sustained yield basis.

(g) Wildlife: With the disappearance and degradation of natural vegetation, wildlife is also considerably reduced. The Gazelle, which used to occur naturally in Abu Dhabi, has disappeared altogether. It is now being reintroduced in man-made forest plantations. The Houbara bustard, a migrant bird, which used to come to the UAE in large numbers from the central Asian steppes in old days, is a rare visitor now mainly because of the disappearance of shelter and feed for it.

2. Depletion and degradation of limited water resources

Most agricultural development work including afforestation is totally dependent on artificial irrigation throughout the Emirates. Most irrigation is dome with the limited ground water available in the Emirates. According to Halcrow consultants (1969), the total storage in the underground aquifers of the UAE is of the order of 5.3 billion cubic meters with an average annual recharge of 105 million cubic meters. Subsequent studies have not led to a revision of the total amount of underground water storage but a Sogreah consultants' study of 1979 estimates a probably significantly higher annual recharge of about 240 million cubic meters. Taking the current annual use of water for agricultural crops, fruit trees, forest plantations and domestic use to be of the order of 640 million cubic meters, there is an annual overdraft of at least 400 million cubic meters from the presently tapped aquifers. As a result, there is a rapid and continuous decline of the water table in most aquifers of the UAE. With the declining water table, the quality of water generally deteriorates. There is also a definite intrusion of seawater in the over exploited coastal aquifers of the east coast.

3. Salinization of soil

With artificial irrigation, depending on the quality of water used, salts tend to accumulate on the soil surface and in the root zone of agricultural crops and trees. This is occurring all over the Emirates wherever irrigation water is being applied. The rate of salinization varies not only with the quality of the water used but also by the method of irrigation used. These latter consist of flood and basin irrigation, furrow irrigation, drip irrigation, sprinkler irrigation and bubbler irrigation.

The rate of salinization of soil is much faster in the case of the traditional flood irrigation or furrow irrigation methods as compared to the drip irrigation system. More water is needed for both irrigation and for reclamation of soil by leaching with these traditional methods of irrigation.

The quality of ground water varies a great deal in the Emirates. Water in the shallow aquifers derived from annual precipitation or its sub-surface flow from the mountains contains fewer salts. The ground water derived from the deeper aquifers is generally more brackish. The water derived from the ‘Sabkha’ areas and from places nearer to the coast is generally more brackish than that obtained from the interior aquifers. The quality of the ground water gradually improves as one moves away from the coast into the interior. More brackish water used for irrigation purposes salinizes the soils more quickly. Larger quantities of more brackish water are, therefore, required to be used for the leaching of the soils salinated by it.

After reclamation by leaching salinized soils are subject to secondary salinization. The irrigated soils thus would require to be reclaimed repeatedly after their recurrent secondly salinization.

4. Encroachment by sand and sand dunes

Roads, habitations, cultivated land and forest plantations are liable to be encroached upon by moving sand and sand dunes in most places in the Emirates. This encroachment by sand is considerably much more where natural vegetation in the surrounding areas has either been destroyed or depleted.

The sand has to be physically removed by using heavy earth moving machinery to clear the roads or to save habitations, farmlands or forest plantations. Physical impediments such as cement asbestos sheets, galvanized iron sheets or date fronds are erected across the main prevailing direction of the wind to check encroachment by sand. The sand accumulated against the physical barrier is also periodically removed. As a long-term measure live shelterbelts or wind breaks of arid zone species are raised to slow down the wind velocity and keep the sand away from openly invading the protected places. Both live shelterbelts or wind breaks and block plantations are being raised to lessen or check encroachment by sand.

A variety of sand dunes are found in various parts of the Emirates. They are continually growing, moving or changing their shapes and forms. Recent observations, made on the comparatively stable and mobile sand dunes in the Western region of Abu Dhabi, indicate that they may be moving at the rate of one to three meters annually in the main direction of the prevalent wind. A number of methods and techniques are being used to check their advance.

Basic Causes of Degradation and Resource Losses

1. Existence of delicate ecological equilibrium

The environmental factors over most of the Emirates exist in a very delicate state of equilibrium. Their mishandling such as excessive use or some other form of mismanagement upsets the ecological balance and leads to serious losses of the natural resources. For example, by using the range lands beyond their carrying capacity either by intensive use or by grazing an excessive number of livestock would lead to their gradual degradation and ultimate destruction. Under the harsh and variable climatic and environmental conditions prevailing in the Emirates, it is a delicate matter to maintain the ecological equilibrium. And it is this disturbance of the ecological equilibrium that also generally led to the degradation and losses of naturally renewable resources in the past.

2. Increasing pressure of human and livestock populations

Since the discovery and commercial exploitation of crude oil beginning in the early sixties, pressure on local natural resources of the Emirates has been increasing tremendously. The human population which stood at about 180 000 in 1968 rose to about 320 000 persons in 1972, jumped to about 870 000 persons in 1978, 900 000 in 1979, and is now estimated to be a little over one million.

Similarly, the livestock population is also increasing at a rapid rate as would be seen from the table given below:

Table 2: Livestock population in the UAE

S. No. Kind of animals Numbers during 1972 Numbers during 1978 Numbers during 1979
1 Goats 225 000 250 000 310 500
2 Sheep 85 000 95 000 120 000
3 Cattle 20 000 18 600 56 400
4 Camels 35 400 48 000 56 400
  Totals: 365 400 411 600 510 200

In the Abu Dhabi Emirate, the Government pays an annual subsidy of Dh 50 for every head of sheep or goat and Dh 200 for every head of camel raised by the local inhabitants. The increasing numbers of livestock means greater pressure on the natural grazing lands that may be more than their carrying capacity in many cases.

3. Excessive exploitation of the ground water resources

As stated earlier, under critical areas of resource pressure, there is not enough recharge of the ground water aquifers that are being excessively exploited. There is an estimated annual overdraft of 400 million cubic meters of water at present that has resulted in the fall of water table in most aquifers. And the fall in the water level of the aquifers generally leads to the deterioration of the quality of irrigation water. The water from the declining aquifers tends to contain more salts.

However, detailed meteorological and hydrological data for considerable lengths of time are needed to evaluate the situation both for national and regional aquifers more accurately and precisely.

4. Lack of a clearly defined policy on resource management

In the past a clearly defined policy for a wise resource management was neither available nor implemented. This resulted in an unscientific management of the natural resources leading to their degradation and depletion. As a result of investigations and scientific studies of the natural resources recently being, it should be possible to formulate and enunciate a suitable resource management policy according to our present state of knowledge and experience of the prevalent ecological conditions.

Formulation of a Policy on Resource Management

So far there has been no serious attempt for the formulation of a suitable and well-defined policy on natural resource management in the UAE. However, the resources have been managed in the past under the directives and orders to the Rulers of the Emirates and in many cases very useful and valuable work has been done for the development of agricultural resources. It would be more appropriate to say that a policy on resource management for the Emirates is being evolved at present.

In the context of the preparation of the economic and social five-year plan (1981-85) for the UAE; major policy issues have either been decided or being finalized at the moment. For the finalization of the five year plan for the agriculture sector, various policy issue with regard to proper management of the renewable agricultural issues are being decided in the light of a number of studies already carried out by the Consultants and on the basis of recent data collected, compiled and analyzed by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture on climate, soils, water, hydrology, demography, cultural methods and marketing studies etc. for the proper management of the agricultural resources of the UAE.

It is hoped that the policy being evolved will be clearly enunciated and effectively implemented by issued needed legal enactments and by creating a suitable infrastructure for their enforcement and implementation. Laws for the setting up of an agricultural marketing corporation, a higher authority for the management of the country’s water resources, and a higher committee for environment have all been finalized recently. More enactments would be needed for the conservation and proper management of the natural resources such as forests, rangelands and wildlife.

Resource Management and Desertification Control being incorporated in the Five Year National Plan (1981-85)

As stated previously, a scientific and proper management of the agricultural resources is being incorporated in the first national development plan in pursuance of the findings of the Consultants’ studies and the investigations carried out by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture. However, there appear to be some contradictions in the stand taken by the government previously and what should be the policy now in view of the latest studies and their results. Besides enhancing the productive capacity of the renewable natural resources, it is necessary that emphasis be also laid on their conservation. These resources are not to be managed on a sustainable basis so that they are also available for future generations for all times. Forests (including artificially raised forest plantations) and range lands require to be managed in a manner so that their yield and benefits will be available in the future on a sustained basis.

Ground water resources also need to be conserved and wisely used. To achieve this, cultivated areas may have to be limited, and more thrifty and economical irrigation practices that would reduce water needs and increase the productivity of cultivated lands would require to be employed. Already valuable work on the merits of various irrigation practices both traditional and introduced has been carried out at the Digdagga Agricultural Research Station of the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and its findings are available for field application. >It is expected that any contradictions between the previous practices and what should be done would be resolved and necessary conservation and desertification control measures which should be followed now would be incorporated in the national development plan.

Organizations Dealing with Integrated Resources Management and Desertification Control

The organization dealing with the integrated resource management and desertification control at the federal level in the UAE is the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries Resources. The United Arab Emirates is divided into four regions that are in the charge of four regional Directors of Agriculture. The Western Agricultural region covers the whole Abu Dhabi emirate. The Central Agricultural region covers Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman and Umm al Quwain and Ras al Khaimah emirates. The Eastern Agricultural region deals with the areas of Fujairah, Ras al Khaimah and Sharjah emirates. The Northern Agricultural region includes most of Ras al Khaimah and parts of Fujairah emirates. Not much attention so far has been paid by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture to the proper management of forests, rangelands and hilly catchment areas.

A good deal of work especially in Abu Dhabi Emirate is also being carried out in the field of integrated resource management. The agricultural development work is being dealt with independently in the Eastern Region of Abu Dhabi with headquarters at Al Ain and in the Western Region of Abu Dhabi with headquarters in Abu Dhabi. Similarly, the other six emirates are also doing agricultural development work at the local level as well. It would be desirable to develop suitable cooperation and coordination in the working of the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Agricultural Departments of the various emirates.

Recent Achievements in the Matter of Desertification Control

A lot of useful work has been carried out by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture in the individual emirate Agriculture Departments for desertification control in recent years and since the convening of the United Nations Conference on Desertification in 1977.

1. Collection of basis data

The Federal Ministry of Agriculture through its Water and Soil Department has collected useful basic climate and agro meteorological data from its nine climatological stations and a network of rainfall observation stations. Basic data on surface and ground water hydrology has been collected since 1975 from seven recording stations and various spot gauging sites. Sediment load studies of a number of hilly catchments have also been initiated. It is being arranged to upgrade six more spot gauging sites to full recording stations. Besides installing eleven water level recorders, data on water levels from a total of 239 boreholes have been collected. To monitor the quality of ground water electrical conductivity and detailed chemical analysis of water samples have been carried out. Similarly, chemical analysis of soil samples from various parts of the Federation has also been undertaken at the Ministry’s laboratories at the Digdagga Agricultural Research Station. All this useful information is being printed in the Water and Soil yearbook of the Ministry of Agriculture and is available for monitoring and devising desertification control.

2. Afforestation

A good deal of desert afforestation, raising of shelterbelts and raising of date gardens has been carried out by the Forestry and Agriculture Departments of the emirate of Abu Dhabi. Starting in 1975, more than 8 000 hectares have been afforested in the desert areas of the western region alone in the form of shelterbelts and block plantations using local ground water with the drip irrigation system. They carry more than 1 600 000 plants of arid zone trees species and forage plants such as ‘Ghaf’ (Prosopis spicigera), ‘Samar’ (Acacia tortilis), ‘Sidr’ (Zyziphus spinachristi), ‘Arta’ (Calligonum comosum), ‘Markh’ (Leptadenia pyrotechnica), Atriplex spp. Etc.

3. Shelterbelt planting

A major roadside tree shelterbelt project along the Beda Zayed – Liwa asphalted road for a distance of 55 kilometers was started at the end of 1980. This project has been designed to protect from sand dune encroachment from Beda Zayed town to Muzeira village in the Liwa oasis. The windbreak will be raised with arid zone tree species by using a drop irrigation system for a 200-meter-wide corridor along the windward i.e. northwestern side of the Liwa road. The leveling work over a 225-meter-wide strip all along the road involved the cutting, transporting, filling and leveling of hundreds of millions of cubic meters of sand and earth with heavy earth moving machinery.

4. Raising of date gardens

Date gardens (one and a half or two hectares each) are also raised by the Agriculture and Forestry Departments in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi and, when fully established, are allotted to local inhabitants for maintenance and for locally required vegetable and fodder crops. These rectangular date gardens are provided with a shelterbelt of arid zone tree species on their outer boundary followed by two rows of date palms next to the tree shelterbelt. The unplanted area in the middle of the date gardens is cultivated to raise fodder and agricultural crops. About 300 such date gardens have been completed and handed over to local farmers in various places in the western region of Abu Dhabi. The watering of these date gardens is carried out by a drip irrigation system for the trees and by flood irrigation in small basins for the raising of agricultural crops.

5. Range management

A project for range improvement over an area of about 25 000 hectares in the Bainuna area of the Western Region of Abu Dhabi was started in 1979. The area has since been fenced and range conservation and development operations have just been started. Both drip and sprinkler irrigation systems will be used in this project to raise arid zone tree species and fodder bushes and grasses. It is a pioneering range improvement work being undertaken on a fairly large scale under extremely arid desert conditions.

Handling of Major Ecological Problems

Major ecological problems of a wide scale, such as land degradation, encroachment by desert and range management have not been adequately tackled by the research and planning machinery in the UAE so far. However, some useful work on land degradation has been carried out at the Digdagga Agricultural Research Station and by the Al Ain Agriculture Research Station.

The Federal Ministry of Agriculture have recently completed constructed of their new Agricultural Research Institute and Laboratories near Al Ain. This organization could be an appropriate body to undertake research among other things on major ecological problems facing the UAE. This work could also be undertaken by the faculty of Biological Sciences and the newly established faculty of Agriculture at the Emirates University, Al Ain. Technical assistance from the UNESCO, the ECWA or the FAO for these wide ranging studies would be worthwhile and useful.

Account of Some Traditional Resources Conservation Structures and Techniques

1. Seasonal grazing by nomadic grazers

A variety of rangelands exist in the Emirates, such as at Bainuna, Al Dhafra, Al Khatum and Al Hamrah but these cannot provide grazing and browsing for livestock year round. On account of the extensive variability of rainfall both in time and space, good grazing in the vast arid rangelands may be available only at certain places. These rangelands have, therefore, been used according to the forage available in them since time immemorial. The seasonal grazing of arid rangelands can be practiced more extensively now as the drinking water required for human beings and livestock can be easily transported by water tankers even to far-flung areas in the interior of the desert.

2. Provision of supplemental feed

Throughout the Emirates, supplemental feed has to be provided to range-fed livestock. Roughages in the form of dried and baled grass are imported from Oman and Iran. Similarly, concentrates like dates, dried fish, wheat bran etc. and manufactured cattle feeds are also used for supplemental feed.

Green fodder, raised in farming lots and consisting of “Jat’ (Lucerne), ‘Shair’ (barley), ‘Zahar’ (sorghum), ‘Saiblu’ (millet) and fodder bushes like Atriplex nummularia, A. Canescens and A. halimus, is also fed to the livestock.

The provision of supplemental fed to livestock practiced since ancient times helps in reducing in reducing pressure on the rangelands. The grazers can and do utilize the livestock subsidy given to them in the emirate of Abu Dhabi for the purchase of supplemental feed.

Concluding Remarks

As a result of the above general survey and review of the present state of desertification control in the UAE, it is suggested that action may be considered on the following proposals in order to combat desertification more effectively in the future. The proposals are briefly listed and discussed below:

1. Survey, demarcation and mapping of natural resources

This is necessary to know the precise situation and condition of the still surviving forests, and degraded rangelands and any wildlife in them. This information is lacking at present. The use of satellite images and aerial photographs followed by ground surveys would be needed to accomplish this task.

All existing natural resources should be surveyed, demarcated on the ground and mapped for their proper conservation, development and scientific management.

2. Ecological studies and surveys

These are necessary to devise and plan suitable conservation and management techniques for the natural resources of the UAE. The Emirates University at Al Ain and the Agricultural Research Institute of the Federal Ministry of Agriculture could collaborate in these studies and surveys.

The Botany Department of the University may prepare and publish a flora for the UAE.

3. Detailed study of national and regional underground aquifers

Some useful work has already been carried out in this respect and more climatological and hydrological data are being collected for the whole of UAE by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture. This data will be useful for the detailed studies of the national ground water aquifers. For the study of regional aquifers, collaboration would be needed with Saudi Arabia and the Sultanate of Oman. The ECWA could probably help in organizing and conducting the regional studies.

4. Study and selection of suitable ecotypes and varieties of tree species and agricultural crops

For this both the indigenous flora and exotic foreign species and varieties would require to be studied. Already a large number of exotic plant species and varieties of crops have been introduced and are being cultivated at present. More attention needs to be given to the local plant material that has adjusted and adapted itself to the local environment through the ages.

It would also be worthwhile to import superior plant types and varieties from similar ecological areas in various parts of the world and try them under UAE conditions. This wealth of plant material might ultimately be utilized for future plant breeding work when it is undertaken in the UAE.


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