Desertification is a threat to food supply in Dubai. Can the fledgling green technology of this city cause the sand to retreat? Dubai has never been a stranger to the desert. The busiest city in the UAE, now home to nearly three million people, is surrounded by the sea on one side and an endless carpet of sand on the other.
The city of Dubai has been telling an unlikely success story for the past 50 years. A city that went from a fishing port to one of the brightest metropolises in the world; But despite all these capabilities, Dubai faces a major challenge: rebellious deserts that threaten fertile land.
The UAE is about the same size as Portugal; But 80% of the country is desert. The UAE ecosystem is partly fragile due to desertification. Many of the country’s valuable assets are at risk of deformation. “As populations and food systems increase, so will land erosion and desertification,” according to a government report released in 2019.
Finding effective solutions to these problems has become a priority for the UAE. The main goal is not to conquer the desert, but to recover parts of the earth that have lost their fertility. The UAE is in a unique position compared to other countries suffering from desertification. The country has the financial resources needed to bolster its ideas and innovations. Dubai in particular is keenly pursuing the development of green technology, and heavy investments have been made in supporting green startups and technology education institutes with an environmental approach.
The existence of Dubai is a testament to the fact that many financial ambitions and ambitions can be realized without financial support. The mindset that helped build a city on the sand today can help combat desertification and drive back deserts. If successful, these solutions can be used globally.
Vegetables in the ground improved with liquid natural clay
Desertification is a type of land degradation that renders arable and fertile land barren and arid in arid and semi-arid regions. This usually happens when natural resources such as water and soil become infertile, which is why the earth is less able to protect vegetation. Although desertification can occur naturally, its speed is increasing in the UAE and in the world in general due to human activities such as poor livestock and centralized agriculture and infrastructure development. According to William H. Skelsinger, a biogeochemist and former director of the Kerry Institute for Ecosystem Studies in New York, who has more than 30 years of experience studying deserts:
Desertification occurs when land and vegetation are usually over-stressed at desert boundaries. The result is less plant fertility and the transition to plant species that are less useful for human activities.
Nearly 12 million hectares of land are lost annually as a direct result of drought and desertification. This figure is equivalent to the loss of 2,000 American football fields per hour. If you put these fields together, in general, the speed of desert expansion will reach 210 kilometers per hour.
The speed of desert expansion around the world reaches 210 kilometers per hour
In the last 20 years, much of the UAE’s valuable assets have been lost. According to the World Bank, the UAE had 75,000 hectares of arable land in 2002, but by 2018 only 42,300 hectares of arable land remained. The data also show that over the same period, the percentage of UAE agricultural land decreased from 97.7% to 38.5%.
Consumption of huge oil reserves increased during the UAE during the 1970s and 1980s, but this exploitation took place without environmental considerations. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has listed the UAE as one of the worst per capita environmental sites. According to Down Chatty, professor of anthropology at Oxford University:
The development of the UAE over the past 40 years has been done with an unfriendly environment. To reverse this trend, we need serious financial action and social change
The United Arab Emirates, and Dubai in particular, pledged to improve the situation because of this negative media coverage. In 2012, UAE Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum announced the UAE Green Development Strategy to maintain a sustainable environment and support long-term economic growth and build the country’s green economy. According to Professor Natalie Koch, a political geography specialist at Syracuse University in New York:
Political and business leaders in the UAE know that environmental issues are crucial to modernizing a country and cities like Dubai.
A man caring for crops on a laboratory farm in the United Arab Emirates
Decision-makers in the UAE, on the other hand, are worried about how they can maintain their current wealth by running out of oil resources or devaluing them. According to Gook Gunnell, a professor of paleontology at Rice University in Texas and author of Desert Aerospace, a book on energy, climate change and urban design in Abu Dhabi:
Since the 2000s, due to Dubai’s transition to a knowledge-based economy, much effort has been made to attract technology startups. In this regard, investment in renewable energy and clean and sustainable technology are all intermediaries for economic diversification.
Efforts are currently underway around Dubai. For example, the Dubai 2030 Industrial Strategy emphasizes the urban designer with the goal of improving construction with energy efficiency and environmentally friendly. On the other hand, the one gigawatt Muhammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, 50 km south of Dubai, is one of the largest solar parks in the world.
But Dubai’s environmental problems, especially desertification problems, are a long way from being resolved. Drought, overuse of natural resources, rapid urban development and rising soil salinity are all risks that threaten the city. Failure to find solutions to these problems threatens everything from crops to indigenous species in the region.
In addition, given that the UAE is heavily dependent on imports to increase its population, it is necessary to increase the level of domestic food production so that the region becomes more self-reliant and sustainable. In May 2021, Sheikh Mohammed unveiled the Food Tech Valley, a place for innovation and research aimed at tripling UAE food production. The UAE needs effective anti-desert innovations to achieve this.
View of Burj Khalifa and palm trees
One of the oldest ways to solve these problems is to plant more trees. “Trees can strengthen the soil, absorb carbon, improve soil fertility and increase groundwater infiltration,” said Anna Tengberg, a professor at the Center for Sustainable Studies at Land دانشگاه University in Sweden.
Dubai policymakers are also well aware of the potential of trees in the fight against desertification. In 2010, Sheikh Mohammed launched the One Million Tree program. The program aimed to plant one million trees to increase Dubai’s green cover and prevent desertification. However, according to Hamzeh Nazal, a representative of Green Land, the company that launched the project in partnership with the Zayed International Environmental Foundation, “100% of the trees died and the project completely failed.”
Nazal says the one million tree project after the unveiling of Dubai Holding The development of real estate projects in those areas was stopped. Nazal adds:
It is clear that the project was started for media and advertising purposes to show that there are plans for sustainable development. If they really cared about the environment, they would try to save the million trees that were dying in front of them.
“Henderson, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, says:
The real goal of the One Million Sustainable Development Tree project is unlikely. In addition, political and environmental prestige are important reasons. Ecologically, the project’s failure is due to the fact that some trees are not suitable for the UAE environment.
Future Planet also contracted with Dubai Holding and the municipality for the project, but to no avail.
The Washington Palm Tree, planted as part of the One Million Tree Plan in 2016 near Dubai (left) and 2019 (right)
Tengberg also believes that selecting suitable species is as essential to tree planting projects as the distance between trees in arid areas as well as the interests of the people.
Despite the failure of the One Million Trees project, tree planting is still one of the main goals of Dubai’s desertification strategy. Saudi Arabia, another Middle Eastern country, also aims to plant 10 billion trees in the coming decades as part of the Saudi Green Initiative Has unveiled.
Of course, for the success of any project in arid areas, it is essential to understand the intelligent use of water resources for the survival of trees and their health. Dubai and other parts of the Middle East have invested in projects such as cloud seeding to produce artificial rain, but many of these projects are controversial because they could increase the likelihood of flooding or produce harmful substances such as silver iodine that are harmful to health.
Technologies developed in green startups such as the Norwegian startup Desert Control offer a different path. The goal of Desert Control is to solve the problem of Dubai desertification by developing liquid natural clay nanoparticles to convert desert sand to fertile soil. This technology pours the liquid consisting of water and clay into the dry and damaged ground, thus creating a layer 50 cm thick. According to Kristen Seurstin, CEO of Desert Control:
Gravity causes small particles of clay to penetrate into the ground and stick to the grains of sand. They can then form a soil structure that absorbs water like a sponge. This turns the sand into fertile soil.
LNC Improvement of Guava Fruit Trees in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi
Liquid nanoparticles not only irrigate the earth but also ensure that water and nutrients are retained in the earth for a long time. As a result, this imperfect earth can be revived.
According to Daniel Evans, a researcher on sustainable soil systems at the Cranfield Institute for Soil and Agriculture in the UK, this technology shows the potential for soil improvement in difficult environmental conditions. Desert Control is still in the early stages of its work, but since 2019 it has implemented the liquid natural clay model in Dubai for farmers and landowners and the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA). Different soil types require custom liquid-natural clay compositions, so stable testing is required to ensure the correct solution in each sample.
According to Siverstein, the ICBA cites a 47% saving in water consumption using lawn technology commonly used for sports lawns, golf courses, parks and green landscapes. Better yields of food products such as watermelon (17%), pearl millet (028%) and squash (62%) were also reported. In a project in Dubai, soil improvement resulted in a 50% saving in water consumption for palms and other types of trees. However, using liquid natural clay to grow a number of Dubai trees will be important. “A palm tree can consume 250 liters of water a day,” says Siurstin.
“Although liquid clay is a very exciting opportunity, there are still many questions about its applicability and viability,” said Anne Verhoff, a physicist at the University of Reading. For example, the use of saline water affects soil health and its suitability for agriculture in the long run. Due to the lack of fresh water in the UAE, water used in agriculture is often obtained by desalination of plants, which can lead to higher than normal levels of salt.
As a result, according to Verhoof, liquid clay needs to be slowly implemented in the coming years with appropriate scientific experiments so that it does not have a detrimental effect on soil, the wider environment, and local communities. Even if the improvement of liquid clay is successful, Evans says, it will not solve all the challenges associated with farming in desert environments, such as storing harvested food and supporting the labor force to harvest the crop. He adds:
Technological innovations in robotics, artificial intelligence, and sensors can help overcome these limitations.
Camels in the desert with a cityscape of Dubai in the background
Nearly 75% of our planet Earth is eroding, but the main problem is lack of attention. According to Tangberg:
Land erosion affects Africa, Asia, Latin America, and poor areas in developed countries, such as some Mediterranean and arid regions. Rich countries, on the other hand, are more concerned about climate change, biodiversity loss and chemical pollution.
The problem of inattention is reflected in the structure of international environmental monitoring and investment mechanisms. An example is the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, which has attracted less investment than other treaties on climate change and biodiversity.
Given the vast wealth and the need to save the earth, the UAE’s anti-desertification efforts can be a balm to these challenges and a model for the rest of the world. By leading the region’s technology, the UAE can offer vast benefits to the suburbs and other regions, which face uncertain futures due to desertification.