Greening a desert region is no easy task. It is more so when the priority is to use plants, trees and grasses that are eco-friendly and suited to the area. Suchitra Bajpai Chaudhary finds out how a host of organisations is going to great lengths to make the region verdant and how you too can make a huge difference

The Arabian Peninsula is known to be one of the harshest environments on earth. But a visitor to the region, particularly the UAE, is sure to be amazed to see the greenery all around.

From the small pools of greenery on traffic roundabouts to the lengthy strips running parallel to arterial roads, to the large swathes of grass and picturesque gardens, to verdant golf courses and parks, the UAE seems to be well on course to becoming one of the greenest areas in the region.

That, in fact, seems to be the goal of the horticulture department of Dubai Municipality and the municipalities of the other emirates as well. But what makes the effort all the more praiseworthy is that the authorities are going to great pains to ensure that eco-friendly plants which are suited to the region are used for greening.

For instance, did you know that Al Badia Golf Course and a golf course coming up on the Arabian Ranches are using the eco-friendly paspalum grass?

At the Arabian Ranches Golf course, the International Centre for Bio-saline Agriculture (ICBA) has collaborated with a private company to cultivate about 600 cubic metres of this special Australian strain of grass. It has been naturalised and adapted to local conditions and can be irrigated with 21,000 ppm saline water.

In fact, 50-60 per cent of the irrigation is done with seawater!

Dubai Municipality has perhaps one of the most active horticulture departments where greening programmes are carried out year- round. So keen is the municipality to change the topography without upsetting the ecosystem that it has planted the eco-friendly paspulam grass in about 5.5 million square metres of the city landscapes!

Apart from this, plants, shrubs and grasses specially nurtured in Municipality nurseries and adapted to the region are transplanted to the kerbs and flowerbeds all around the city.

"Since 2001,'' says Madhat Sharief, consultant horticulturist for Dubai Municipality, "the strategic aim of Dubai Municipality has been to maintain indigenous species and improve their strains.''

Seeds of more than 1,100 species of flowering plants from Beirut, Australia, Egypt, the Netherlands and other countries are purchased, developed and adapted to suit desert conditions.

"We have established a new nursery for indigenous plants at Warsan, near Dubai Academic City, for the propagation of new plants,'' says Sharief. "We prefer to beautify the city with trees, plants and shrubs of the indigenous variety,'' he adds.

This is the reason why you will see a lot of acacia (samar), Gaf (Cinerassia), Kak and palm trees on the Dubai-Al Ain Road, on Al Aweer Road and on the Emirates Ring Road.

According to Sharief, over 63,000 indigenous trees were planted in a greening programme in Mushrif Park in Rashidiya. "We have 15 protected areas including Ras Al Khor, where many indigenous trees, plants and shrubs are raised,'' he says.

In fact, in some protected areas where there is no electricity, pumps powered by solar energy are used to irrigate plants using water stored in overhead tanks.

Ahmad Abdul Karim, the director of Horticulture and Public Parks in the Dubai Municipality, points out the significance of planting indigenous trees. All the local varieties of trees need very little water and low maintenance. They can withstand high temperatures and humidity and thrive in the saline soil.

"We encourage residents to plant indigenous trees, grasses, plants and shrubs in their gardens because it can cut water consumption by half,'' says Sharief.

"Plant saplings are available at reasonable rates from our nursery in Warsan,'' adds Sharief. Trees and shrubs cost about Dh8 per sapling, whereas seasonal flowering plants are priced at around 50 fils per sapling.

"The Dubai Municipality on World Environment Day (June 5) distributed plants and saplings to residents free of cost to encourage the growth of indigenous plants and create awareness about water conservation,'' he says.

Precious commodity
Sharief's statement underlines the importance of focusing on water, the most essential commodity in irrigating the greens and so precious in the desert region. Water management and its conservation hold the key to the success of burgeoning cities in the region.

With global warming and major climatic changes occurring almost all over the world, the importance of water conservation, particularly in the desert regions, cannot be overemphasised.

In fact, some experts have suggested that major battles in the future are going to be fought not for oil or even land but for water.

At the World Water Council held in March this year, its president, Loic Fauchan, astutely cautioned the world of the impending crises: "... Unacceptable is the lack of water or its poor quality, which, last year, caused 10 times more deaths than all the wars waged on the planet together.

Unacceptable are the hundreds of millions of women and children who, each morning, must walk many hours in search of water that is too scarce, distant or contaminated."

Conservation measures
Many people would be wondering what steps Dubai Municipality is taking to conserve this precious resource, even as it uses hundreds of litres of water to irrigate its landscapes around the city.

According to a source, Dubai Municipality takes two steps to ensure conservation. One, it uses treated sewage water to irrigate its landscapes, and, two, it emphasises the importance of growing indigenous plants or plant seeds that have been imported from other regions but adapted to the conditions here so that they can survive with less water, in saline conditions and require low maintenance.

If you are wondering where all the waste water comes from, read this: each person in the UAE contributes to between 7 and 100 gallons of waste water each day! This includes human and household wastes from toilets, sinks, baths and drains.

Industries, schools, business organsations and factories too contribute to this vast pool of
waste water.

Underground ducts and pumping stations transport this water to purification plants, where purification takes place over several stages. In a nutshell, first a screen is used to remove solids. Then, helpful bacteria are introduced to consume organic matter in the waste water.

Once this process is complete, the bacteria are separated. Then, oxygen is bubbled through the water (this ensures that water introduced into the landscaped area has enough oxygen to support life) after which it undergoes a disinfection process.

While desalination plants provide potable water for human consumption, recycling plants provide water and organic fertilisers (separated from sludge) for plants.

Sewage typically contains 99 per cent water. Every day, close to 210,000 cubic metres of sewage passes through the Dubai sewerage system. This passes through various treatment stages after which it is used to irrigate close to 19,387,600 square metres of greenery in Dubai.

A certain volume of treated water is also channelled to roadside fire hydrants for fire-fighting purposes.

Plants imported from Europe that require high maintenance and large volumes of water for survival are now being replaced with plants that are either indigenous or adapted to the desert environment. These, typically, can withstand saline soil conditions, heat and less watering.

A few of the natural species of plants that survive desert conditions are:

  • Salt-tolerant halophytes. Some halophytes such as Limonium and Tamarix are able to excrete salts in concentrated forms
  • Drought resistant xerophytes
  • Pheratophytes with root systems long enough to tap a permanent water supply and
  • Ephemerals that are winter/spring annuals.

Thus there are shrubs, grasses, trees and flowering plants that can survive harsh desert conditions.

How you can help in water conservation
Given a chance, almost all of us would love to have a small patch of greenery in and around our homes.

The best way to have a flourishing garden is to ensure that it does not put a drain on your water bills and yet survives the extreme climate conditions of this place.

If you have a garden and would like to use treated water there, it is possible now. All you need to do is make a request to Dubai Municipality, which will supply treated water at $0.5 per gallon.

Developing plants for the region
The International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) has been busy conducting research to develop strains of grasses, shrubs and trees and even flowering plants that can withstand high salinity in soil and water. And the good news is that it has been successful.

Although the centre's main focus is in developing plants that are to be grown for agricultural purposes or for forage, as well as plants that can produce bio-fuel or bio-energy, it also works closely with municipalities to encourage growth of indigenous or adapted species of plants that require low maintenance and can survive high temperatures with little water or with saline water.

"Prior to 2001, farmers too were growing grasses such as alfalfa for animal forage,'' says Dr Shoaib Ismail, halophyte agronomist for ICBA. "This required 20,000 cubic metres of water per hectare (during the cropping season) - a big drain on the ground water resources.''

Gradually things began to change and as awareness grew, ICBA began conducting experiments growing plants in low to medium saline water. Farmers took the cue and began replacing high water-consuming crops with ones that required less water to thrive.

They also started seeking alternate grasses, shrubs and crops that required less water to grow but were equally nutritious as forage for animals. Such plants were financially benefical for the farmers because they cost less to raise and were low-maintenance crops.

"If we could (achieve) even 50 per cent of the productivity levels with less inputs and the outcome was an equally nutritious alternative, it seemed like a good incentive to the farmer,'' says Ismail.

"For example, the acacia tree imported from Australia is very beautiful, remains green throughout the year and is salt tolerant. We adapted that species to whichever country it was to be taken to, and it showed its resilience by surviving in all places.'' While some animals feed on them, it can also be used as a landscaping plant, he says.

It is important to conserve the freshwater resources that were once the lifeline of agriculture in the UAE. Twenty years ago, the quality of this water was good but the overuse of ground water has led to its deterioration.

Today, the ground water has become 15-20 per cent more saline than it was say, 20 years ago, say experts.

Our emphasis is on the use of saline or brackish water for agricultural purposes, says Ismail. Right now, the UAE and GCC countries use about 50 million cubic metres of fresh water annually, which includes ground and desalinated water.

Three million is used for landscaping while the rest is used for agriculture. The municipality uses treated water which is rich in nutrients, he says.

How to conserve water
At ICBA, we have experimented with a variety of high grasses, shrubs, trees and succulent plants which have adapted to surviving in low water conditions, adds Ismail.

He believes that with an increase in the number of private freehold villa owners in the emirates, the need for water consumption is likely to go up drastically.

Under such circumstances, raising plants that can tolerate moderate to high salinity (rather than growing high water-consuming plants) will reduce the consumption of potable water considerably.

How it works
ICBA gets the germ-plasm of plants and then 'domesticates' them for use for forage. At present it has successfully experimented with more than 25-30 species growing in medium salinity to seawater irrigation. ICBA has grown crops such as sorghum, millet, wheat, barley from seeds, and non-conventional species of wild grasses, shrubs, trees and other halophytes for landscaping.

Farm lands that were abandoned by farmers due to their high salinity levels became testing grounds for the ICBA. The centre conducted experiments in 100 different locations in the UAE and made them model farms.

"In fact, we developed an integrated agricultural system for these farms based on issues such as when to irrigate, how to irrigate, how to monitor the salinity, what plants to choose based on ground and salt-water conditions ... Managing the system became the key to the survival of these farms.

"Aquatic plants such as mangroves were planted off Abu Dhabi in some of the islands with success. New species of mangroves from Japan and Pakistan were adapted to the local conditions and introduced in some areas. Mangroves are important in holding the soil and preventing soil erosion,'' says Dr Ismail.

How we can encourage the growth and propagation of indigenous plants

As residents of the UAE we must insist on planting a larger percentage of indigenous or locally-adapted plants.

Among the many things to be done:

  • Purchase saplings and seeds from the Dubai Municipality nursery.
  • When you go plant shopping, try and research a bit about the plants, the conditions they grow in, water consumption required, etc.
  • Maintain a record of your water bills. If they turn out to be drastically high, you can consider making a request for treated water from the Municipality,
  • Go for organic fertilisers.