Saving the date palms of Abu Dhabi

Saving the date palms of Abu Dhabi
Dates have been a centuries way of life for Emiratis. While date palms sup up water supplies, Abu Dhabi is trying to find a balance between tradition and modern needs.
4 min read
20 January, 2016
For Emiratis, dates are not just food but a link to the past [AFP]

Abu Dhabi's famed date palm groves are at risk of being wiped out experts say, as the UAE desperately looks for alternatives to its diminishing groundwater supplies.

A recent study by the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi found that the emirate will run out of water in 50 years' time, unless urgent action is taken, The National reported on Wednesday.

Others give a more pessimistic view. Researchers at UAE University believe that the country only has enough groundwater to last until 2030 and water table levels have dropped by up to 60 metres in some parts of the country.

Water consumption for date palms - which account for 98 percent of all of the UAE's trees - are especially high during summer months.

This - and ever present air conditioning - are factors of why the UAE has the third highest water consumption rates in the world, three times the global average.

'Link to the past'

But many Emiratis would be loath to give up the farming of their local dates, and see this as an indispensable link to the past.

Leaves of the trees were once weaved into mats and baskets for everyday use. 

Palm fronds were used to make barasti beach huts, which were used as living quarters for Emirati farmers many decades ago.

The fruit was a life-source for Bedouin herders - before Emiratis could afford meat and rice

The fruit was a life-source for Bedouin herders - before Emiratis could afford meat and rice - and continue to be a sugary sweet reminder of the past.

Every year, tens of thousands of Emiratis gather at a date festival in Liwa to choose the pick of the crop.
It is why many Emiratis are reluctant to give up this link to their past even if their date farms are supping up urgently needed water supplies

As oil prices continue to drop, the palm tree is also a reminder of survival and resilience in the toughest of environments, just as their ancestors did decades before.

Researchers from the Abu Dhabi-based agency are now mapping out water supplies, educating farmers and "taking action" to minimise water use.

Groundwater supplies add up to 65 percent of the emirate's water budget, and much of it is used for watering date palms which scatter Abu Dhabi, the UAE's largest - and mostly desert - emirate.

There are modern alternatives to centuries-old acquifers, but each has its own handicap.

Environmental costs

Neighbouring Oman has larger groundwater supplies than other parts of the Gulf but is also amid a water crisis.

One option Muscat has looked at is desalination, where sea water is treated to make it suitable for drinking or irrigation.

But this is costly and has some negative impacts on the environment.

Date groves and orchards expend huge amounts of water, which experts believe would be better used for the country's rapidly expanding urban populations.

taboos surround using once effluent water for drinking or farming

Irrigation for small farms are still generally done through traditional methods, by drilling wells in the ground.

The Environment Agency Abu Dhabi has urged people building wells to apply for permission first, and is encouraging the use of treated sewage water.

However, taboos surround using once effluent water for drinking or farming, even if many green spaces in the Gulf are irrigated through treated water.

"We've already conducted research on this, and we found that [results] using treated water for irrigation of forestry - compared with using groundwater - were a lot better," Sheikha al-Hosani from Enivronment Agency Abu Dhabi told The National.

"Now it's a matter of education [but] we are taking it slowly. Enforcement has to be gradual until you build the knowledge and awareness."

Abu Dhabi's environmental agency is trying to protect these traditions, by educating farmers on best practices to minimise on waste water - and inevitably they will have to use treated effluent water.

While oil prices run low, Abu Dhabi might have to turn to its historic crop to bring in urgently needed funds

Agency staff are also marking out "red zones" where groundwater has been diminished and have made it illegal to draw water from these aquifers.

"We need to give it time to replenish, we need it to become of better quality, and we need more information," Mohammed Dawood from the environment agency said.

However, the UAE's crops have their benefits. They are world-famed for their quality and a sign of luxury outside the country.

This is why date farming is seen as a key opportunity for economic growth as the country continues to diversify away from oil.

While oil prices run low, Abu Dhabi might have to turn to its historic crop to bring in urgently needed funds.

Some might be happy with the chance to withdraw from the hustle and demands of modern UAE urban life, for some quiet in their ancestral farms.