How Sheikh Zayid Turned the Desert Green
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The massive agricultural development in the country has put 1,787,633 acres of once-barren land under the "plow" - and 741,000 of these acres are man-made forests. The afforestation effort throughout the country, fueled by giant desalination networks and the use of waste water from urban and industrial projects, is truly remarkable.Skip to next paragraph
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In the Emirate of Abu Dhabi alone, some 130 million trees have been planted. The UAE's 22 million, mostly newly planted palm trees now represent 20 percent of all the palms on the planet. The country is today one of the largest date producers and processors of this fruit in the world - a single factory processes 14,000 tons annually.
Another type of tree proliferating along the UAE coastline is the humble mangrove, which can grow in salt water. Its propagation is a pet project of Sheikh Zayid, who was raised in the dry desert and appreciates a tree that grows in salt water. For 20 years, new stretches of the UAE coast have been greenified by the salt tolerant mangrove. These patches of greenery are becoming important habitats for birds, fish, and invertebrates.
The most renowned of the afforestation projects in Abu Dhabi is on the island of Sir Bani Yas. Three and a half million trees and shrubs, 500,000 of them fruit trees, have been planted on the island. Many are forest species, some indigenous to the Emirates. Others have been introduced to test their adaptability to the UAE's arid climate. Today, trees and shrubs cover 70 percent of the island.
Al Jurf, 61 miles northeast of the city of Abu Dhabi, is another garden spot. In this area of transformed desert, massive planting has created a rich forest of more than 500,000 trees - mostly citrus and palm.
The millions of newly planted trees, along with countless gardens and parks, are a wonderful example of fighting the desert. The extensive shade and evaporative cooling effect created by the man-made leaf canopy has helped to moderate the climate, reducing local temperature by several degrees.
Omar Sharif dumbfounded
The movie star Omar Sharif first visited the UAE in the early 1970s. Returning in 1996 to take part in a project directed by a leading British documentary filmmaker, he remarked, "I am totally dumbfounded by the greenery in the UAE."
The UAE has been so successful in its greenification of the desert that neighboring states are seeking advice. "They used to say, agriculture has no future," Sheikh Zayid has said, "but with God's blessing and our determination, we have succeeded in transforming the desert into a green land."
Sheikh Zayid's life-long dedication to improving the environment in the UAE and the Gulf region earned him the 1997 "Gulf Business Award for Environmental Action" and the "Gold Panda Award," a top international conservation tribute. It was presented to him on March 6, 1997, by Britain's Prince Philip, president of the World Wide Fund for Nature.
As a dedicated conservationist - not only in words but in deeds, as the UAE itself testifies - Sheikh Zayid aptly became the first head of state to receive this award.
* Habeeb Salloum is a writer based in Don Mills, Ontario.