Changing the face of the desert: farms irrigated with oil

With government coffers swelled by oil revenues, and with a will to change the face of the desert, the United Arab Emirates is pushing for increased food security by replacing food imports, wherever possible, with local produce.

Farmers here must cope with an average annual rainfall of under six inches; a plethora of sand, rather than soil; and summer temperatures of up to 120 degrees F. in the shade.

The U.A.E. government has established a subsidy program to help keep farmers on the land and reduce the country's dependence on imported produce. This effort has in part paid off. Government officials estimate local produce now accounts for 20 to 25 percent of the country's annual needs.

Farmers can also get seed, fertilizers, pesticides, and some equipment at subsidized prices. Also, government tractors can be requested to prepare land at no charge.

The system also provides for government purchase of a farmer's entire crop - at market prices. Another method of subsidy is the government's policy of purchasing damaged produce. This brought farmers $5.2 million in 1981.

These efforts may be almost too successful: Overproduction of such crops as tomatoes, cabbage, eggplant, and cauliflower last year pushed market prices down. To avoid such a surplus this year, the Ministry of Agriculture is offering extra subsidies to farmers planting potatoes and onions, which were imported in large quantities last year.

According to the government, the number of farms in the U.A.E. rose from 7, 500 to 13,000 between 1975 and 1981. During the same period, vegetable production increased at a rate of 51 percent a year. Some 160,000 tons were produced in 1981.

There are three major agricultural areas in the U.A.E.: Al Ain, about 100 miles east of Abu Dhabi; Dhaid, an oasis in central Sharjah; and the coastal plain on both sides of the Hajar Mountains in Ras al Khaimah and Fujairah.

All three areas rely entirely on ground water. The water system is facilitated in part by a centuries-old system of underground channels, called aflaj, which transport the water underground to areas of cultivation. Of 80 known channels in the country, less than 25 are said to still be in use, because of a lowering water table.

The government is moving to conserve and protect water resources by strictly controlling the number of new wells and through the construction of two major dams in the Hajar Mountains. The dams, built in river valley wadis that are dry most of the year, are designed to catch the rain and help it replenish the water table.

The water needs of cities such as Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Sharjah are more and more being met by desalination plants that operate in conjunction with power plants.

Efforts to conserve water include greater use of recycled waste water for garden and park areas and the use of drip irrigation systems for agriculture, including a desert-forestation project that extends along the entire 100-mile highway from Abu Dhabi to Al Ain.

In its effort to push ahead with desert-farming techniques, the U.A.E. has also established the Arid Lands Research Center on Sadiyat Island. The center was built in 1972 for $3.3 million with the assistance of the University of Arizona. The center produces about 450 tons of vegetables on four acres, using different techniques, including temperature- and humidity-controlled greenhouses for tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers. The plants are drip-fed a liquid stream of nutrients.

Despite the research successes of the center, its electric and water expenses are reported to be quite high. The 40,000 gallons of water daily produced at the center's desalination plant cost approximately $30,000 a day.

The Ministry of Agriculture is also encouraging the raising of sheep, goats, and camels by distributing per-head subsidies, and it offers soft loans for farmers expanding into chicken and dairy farming.

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